Cheerios Ad Touches Racial Nerve

A recent Cheerios commercial reminds us of the historical roots of race in the United States. Those roots still cause social and political upset. 

Editor's Note: This is the second of two blogs discussing how an advertisement for Cheerios featuring an interracial family has sparked emotions and highlighted the need for deeper discussion about race in the United States.

General Mills and their recent Cheerios commercial reminded us that race still causes severe social and political upset in the United States. A 30-second YouTube commercial featuring a young biracial child interacting with her white mother and black father created a cyber firestorm of racially charged attacks including phrases like, “disgusting,” “racial genocide,” “anti-white,” and “want to vomit.” Such emotionally charged responses signal that despite (or perhaps even because of) the 1967 eradication of laws against interracial marriage and the two-time election of a biracial U.S. president, interracial couples and their children are still not universally accepted. What is it about this particular Cheerios ad that causes such anxiety?

The illusion of “racial purity” rests in the psyches of both black people and white people. The alleged strength of consensual racial segregation is alive and well all over the Internet and in many American neighborhoods. The children of interracial unions are visible reminders of how personal desires easily become political statements for others. Whether through adoption or blending, families now come in more sizes and colors than ever; FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly ominously lamented this reality on the night of Obama’s re-election: “Traditional America as we knew it is gone. Ward, June, Wally and the Beav—outta here.” 

The particular pairing of white women and black men, however, seems to create far greater waves of disruption than the pairing of white men and black women. During America’s antebellum history, white masters had ready and easy access to black female slaves and populated plantations for economic gain with the infamous and irrational “one-drop” rule; blackness was determined by the smallest amount of black blood. The post-slavery reality of consensual intimacies between black men and white women became, and remains, the most disruptive of the ongoing power battles between white and black men in which women become the playing field. Since biracial children challenge the illusion of “racial purity,” lynching and castrating black men and anti-miscegenation laws sought to punish black men and deny their access to white women. 

Even though definitions of “blackness” and “whiteness” based on visible characteristics are problematic at best, these definitions create visceral responses in those who see race mixing as socially wrong, politically bad and even “sinful.” Such racialized fears are also fueled by the recent statistics about the birthrates of brown babies versus white babies. In her commentary "Minority Birth Rate Now Surpasses Whites in US, Census Shows," Hope Yen reports:

For the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the U.S., capping decades of heady immigration growth that is now slowing. New 2011 census estimates highlight a historic shift underway in the nation's racial makeup. They mark a transformation in a country once dominated by whites and bitterly divided over slavery and civil rights, even as it wrestles now over the question of restricting immigration….

While many embrace such intermingling as social enhancement and progress, others view the consensual browning of America as “unnatural” and threatening.

The Cheerios commercial ends with the word “love.” The depiction of an interracial family is not an attempt to force race mixing—or even multiculturalism—down anyone’s proverbial throat. Rather, the commercial seeks to show that America is a country inclusive of diverse, intimate pairings. Featuring these differences in an ad is not an attempt to threaten delusions about racial or ethnic purity, but to show that family, relationships, parenting, heart disease and cereal can potentially unite us. 

Neal A. Lester is professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

Jasmine Lester founded and directs Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault at Arizona State University, and has published on intersectionality and children’s literature.

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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