Black folks love chicken. There, I said it. This stereotype, like all stereotypes, has a good dose of truth in it. In fact, I’d go so far as to make another generalization and say we don’t care if its fried, baked, roasted, grilled, barbecued, fricasseed, jerked, pulled, or even boiled. We just love us some soul bird.
What we don’t like is the lingering racist connotations that are associated with eating poultry (don’t even get me started on swine), which is probably the real reason some black folks are upset by a controversial KFC ad that has some claiming the company is perpetuating racist stereotypes.
The KFC ad depicts a frustrated, white Australian cricket fan sitting among a crowd of black people who are happily dancing to the beat of steel drums while rooting for their team, which is apparently from a Caribbean nation. How does he get them to see things his way? He offers them a bucket of chicken and they quickly change their tune. As they grab pieces of chicken from the bucket, he looks at the camera and says, “Too easy.”
WATCH THEGRIO’S MANAGING EDITOR DAVID A. WILSON DISCUSS THE AD ON THE TODAY SHOW
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Too easy, indeed. In a sense, it’s good to know it still doesn’t take much to ruffle a few feathers in “post-racial America.”
The ad has spurred a frenzy of posts on YouTube with charges of racism against KFC. Some YouTubers suggest that it’s mostly Americans who are overreacting to the ad out of guilt and our knee-jerk reaction to anything with a hint of racial insensitivity. They say that if the ad is viewed in its proper regional and cultural context, it is clearly not racist. But that’s the thing about YouTube, the Internet, and online media technology; we are now immersed in an up-to-the-second, ever-uploading digital One World that has created a cultural context we are all learning to subscribe to. So now, suddenly, every image or message – no matter how “local” – gets a national audience with one click.
So is the ad racist? Does it portray black people in a negative light? I don’t think so. Is it racially insensitive? Definitely. But before I explain, let me say the answer is not even what interests me here. It’s the question. It’s always the question. Who asks, who doesn’t, and how we react to it. This is where the real investigation lies.
In 2010, the questions we feel obliged to ask (or not ask) around race seem to linger around the outer edges of our conversations. For some, they mean nothing; to others, they are a reason to take to the streets. Meaning is always there if you are looking for it.
If nothing else, the KFC ad should be made to serve as a “trial balloon” to test and “recalibrate” millennial global cultural sensitivities. Maybe it’s having a black president or maybe it’s the myth of substantial black progress, but things once deemed blatantly stereotypical or racist in our society are being met with an crisscrossing tide of class, social, and political triggers that make it harder to claim the crutch of racism. And that’s good because we need to get beyond race.
In the 80s and 90s we did simple racial arithmetic – historical markers like Rodney King and O.J. were clear and obvious watermarks about race in America – now it seems we have to perform “racial calculus” to determine racial insensitivity or even real racism. We saw this with the arrest of Henry Louis Gates and the resulting Beer Summit at the White House. And that ever-present American cauldron of historical injustice, racism and unconscious bias, progress and privilege, and plain old naiveté will keep us asking questions.
Should KFC have been more sensitive to how their ad would play in global markets? No doubt. I think giving any group of people of color food as a way to placate them, especially if given by a white male, is suspect. If anything, this shows the lack of creativity, diversity, and sensitivity among the advertising staff that created the ad.
Ultimately, what we need to do when it comes to race in America is trade in our old analog answers for some new digital questions.