Race on the Menu: Cheerios, Paula Deen, with Some Supreme Court for Dessert

imgresIt’s been a bad month. For some reason incidents and issues of race seems to appear like death, in groups of three. They clump together, overwhelming those whom they hurt and they come too quickly for others to process.

In the last month alone:

I have been reminded of the vocal minority who resent interracial marriages (as well as the capitulation of the entertainment industry to these irrational people).

I have read in horror as one of my children’s favorite food personalities displayed the myth of how racial epithets and historical hatred somehow becomes benign in a distorted familiarity, deep-fried in butter and coated with sugar. How someone could claim to love a person and not understand the history of her words is incorrigible.

And of course, the news yesterday that the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Voting  Rights Act that would require states with a historic record of racial discrimination and voter suppression have any changes subject to federal approval before their enactment. But even more discouraging was the logic the majority justices tried to employ in defending their decision claiming that there is simply no need for these laws any longer.

All the while, the aroma of the Zimmerman trial is also wafting from the back of the kitchen, ready to overtake us all at any moment.

There are many who are providing excellent, insightful analysis of both the Supreme Court decision and the Paul Deen fiasco. I myself am just trying to sort out the court cases, the cultural commentary, and the various viewpoints. But in the midst of this storm I keep coming back to the Cheerios commercial that caused such an uproar several weeks ago.

It was a sweet commercial featuring a bi-racial child with her white mother and her black father. While garnering wonderful support the commercial generated a surprising level of angry, hateful and racist comments. But what does a commercial for cereal have to do with Paula Deen and the Supreme Court?

It seems to me that the Supreme Court cases, the discrimination case that led to Deen’s comments and the subsequent uproar with the inevitable question, “Is she a racist or isn’t she?” all have a common root: our inability as a nation to comprehend the ways the story of race has constituted who we are, and how the visual cues of what “America” looks are so often suppressed or manipulated.

All of these moments are putting on display a deep internal struggle that many in America are having with what America is and what it is becoming. These fears are not fears of race explicitly. Instead, race takes on the face of “practical” matters such as the fear of crime, fear of unemployment, fear of new languages, fear of people who are not known. That all the redress of these fears promoted racial inequity and criminalization is somehow overlooked. Many in America are scared and the Cheerios commercial unwittingly displayed much of this raw fear.

But in my view, the trigger of the Cheerios commercial’s agitation was not the interracial couple, per se. Rather, the negative, racist outcry against the commercial displayed the difficulty many have in understanding the child… this mixed race, neither/nor, beautiful little girl… in the midst of her parents. We have seen the prevalence of interracial couples and seen interracial actors, celebrities, even presidents. But in all of these moments we see them isolated from one another, we see only the child whom we can visually locate as one or the other and thereby see as safe or “other” and inconsequential to us. Or, we see only the couple for whom we can cheer, “two people are crossing boundaries so courageously.” “Isn’t that wonderful!” “Exotic!” “So post-racial!”

But what is it about the mundane morning of a mother and a father and child bantering playfully over cereal that is so threatening? In one respect we see the terrifying normalcy of it. We see a child who is born out of two seemingly disparate people’s desire to share a life together. In the image of the child with her parents we cannot escape this choice, this decision to be with one another. In another respect, this child represents the possibility that we cannot easily disentangle ourselves from the various stories and histories and realities that flow into this child from her parents. Viewing her in the triangulation of child-mother-father, we are not allowed to dismiss her as “just a black child.”

And while we live in a very different society than the society of my mother and father, we still live in a place that sees these configurations as strange, as requiring second and third looks that move from mother to father to child and back again.

These issues of Paula Deen and her discrimination (we cannot forget the context these comments arose in), the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act, the murder of Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman’s trial are all complicated, messy, tragic moments. They are moments where, whether we want to admit it or not, race plays a vital and central role.

But I am becoming less convinced that we will be able to have rational conversations about the facts of the cases, about how race functions in our society, what the consequences for our ignorance are for people of color. We cannot have these conversations because I am not sure we have really grappled with the reality of our condition as American citizens. We do not see ourselves as we really are. While some imagine themselves as the white wife and others as the black husband, what we fail to understand is that we are all the mixed race child. Regardless of our race we are children of this interracial union called America. We are the progeny of a tragic, dark, difficult history that we bear in our skin, even while we exhibit many wonderful possibilities.

But we will never move forward until we can admit who we are.

Paula Deen failed to realize the story of the words she thought she was using in love and familiarity. She failed to realize the hostility those words bore for many who worked for her. While some may ask, “How could she have known?” We must ask of her, how can you not know the history of your people?

The justices of the Supreme Court, who seemed so certain of the progress of the United States, could not see the ways in which prejudice and injustice have morphed into new, seemingly practical modes of suppressing some to vote. “How could they know?” They would know if they accounted for the histories of poll taxes and reading requirements. They would know if their lives were at all intimately involved with the daily realities of those whom they presumed to judge. But they did not judge the facts of the case, but what they wanted to believe of themselves, that they were not the child of this interracial union that is the United States. As much as they want to believe that race is no longer an issue, they are so ignorant of their involvement in the story that they do not even realize their own participation in its persistence.

In the midst of all of these stories and even as I write, I am finding it difficult to see a way forward. I am finding it difficult to articulate an argument that could turn someone convinced that racism does not exist, to beginning to see the pernicious effects of its poison in so many facets of American life, much less in their own life. This is why, in this moment, I am not turning to analysis of the VRA’s legal framework or statistics on voting patterns and diversity in higher education, to proper definitions of racism or adjudicating Paula Deen’s “real” views of African Americans.

At this moment I am returning to the mundane disruption of a little girl being loved by her white mother and her black father. In this moment I believe the visual disruption of what America has always been might give us reason to pause. If we pause and breathe for just long enough, perhaps our eyes will begin to open to the ways all of our lives our entangled in the messy reality of race. Perhaps we will see that we are all children of this land and we are children of its tragic history. For many people of color in the US, this fact is reiterated to us in little ways and in big ways, though we all must continue to work to see its fruit in our lives. But for my white brothers and sisters especially, perhaps it is time to look at that child and begin to see yourselves, and begin to ask yourselves if the questions of the immigrant, the dark, the one marked stranger… our history, our rage… can these be your questions, your history and your rage? If not, what is preventing you from seeing a different history? a different set of problems? a different set of fears that beset so many of us?

I believe this little girl and her beloved pretend family might give us pause because I also believe that a child made all the difference for our humanity. A child born unto us gives us pause to consider ourselves in new ways. A child born unto us remakes us and our world even if we are fighting to hold on to an old one. A child born unto us makes possible an accounting of our failures and our lack of sight. A child born unto us allows us to see who we really are.  We are children born of a broken world, bearing the marks of that tragedy and disfunction and death in ways that we mistakenly believe to be life. We need to be new. We need to confess. Sometimes we need to be shown what to confess and what to write and what to eat. We need to be open to the possibility that we do not know the ways we are unfaithful. But we cannot do that unless we recognize how we are that mixed child, many histories flowing into one body.


4 thoughts on “Race on the Menu: Cheerios, Paula Deen, with Some Supreme Court for Dessert

  1. This is a beautifully written and thoughtful insight into our racial history. I see the beautiful interracial child as a hopeful symbol that we, as a nation, are “moving on”, and it disheartens me deeply to know that there are still those who feel threatened by its implications.

  2. The Cheerios “controversy”? Wow, I consider myself fairly well-read and mostly on top of current events, but never even heard of this one. Perhaps it’s time we stopped measuring the pulse of “society” through so-called “social media” channels?

  3. In the 2004 election, the last before the law was reauthorized, the black registration rate in Mississippi was 76 percent, almost four percentage points higher than the white rate. In the 2012 election, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “African-American voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout in five of the six states originally covered by Section 5.” (Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/us/supreme-court-ruling.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)

    The data does not justify circumventing the US Constitution any longer for this. I’m sure the residents of The Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn are happy they don’t have to get the Federal Govenment’s permission to move a polling place any more.

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