"She doesn’t look American": Coca Cola & Re-Branding White Supremacy | AmericaWakieWakie
From his lips came the numbing question, “What are you?” I am human, I thought keeping quiet. He pressed onward, “No, I mean what is in you?” as if my insides varied so remarkably from his. “Are you mixed?” My lips are full. Tan skin. Dark curled hair. Brown eyes. I am half Latino. Standing in silence I peeked around him. He was bigger than me, older. The body in front of me stooped, his head titled level to mine. Curiosity left his throat as condescending bass began drumming my ears. He repeated his question, louder — “What are you?”
Growing up in Mississippi’s rural countryside these questions became coldly mechanical. Little surprise then yesterday during Coca Cola’s now controversial exercise in multiculturalism, as a Muslim woman came on screen, did I hear the inbred cousin of “What are you” — aka, “She doesn’t look American.” Both, the question asked of me and the assumption made about this woman, at their core say something else more sinister than the words actually muttered.
With bravado they say: You are not White.
Such reminders to black and brown people in America have been a constant thread throughout our history. Yet, yesterday’s Coca Cola advert, what amounted to black and brown faces singing ‘America the Beautiful’ in native tongue, and the uproar thereafter, offers a unique lens into understanding how embedded racism truly is within our culture, even if in gross irony. In essence, literally, before us is the depth and ubiquity of America’s white supremacy.
White Supremacy is American as Apple Pie
Let’s be clear: The only reason folks — white people — are being overtly racist in the wake of Coca Cola’s commercial is because the normalized, yet often unarticulated, conception of white supremacy is almost always white. This culture of whiteness derives from itself the racial identities of its participants, its history and mythology, how they operate in the world, and perhaps most of all, it is by this process of normalization that white supremacy finds itself purposefully the dominant cultural phenomenon in America, dictating too the identities of all Others in proximity to it.
Speaking in 1965 on the ubiquity of whiteness, before a packed Cambridge debate, James Baldwin unleashed the fullness of his lived experience:
“In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
Not much has changed. When Coca Cola aired its commercial, black and brown Americans quickly got thousands, if not millions, of reminders that as people of color, we, like Baldwin realized, are not Gary Cooper — that, therefore, we are not constitutive elements of American culture. Visiting Twitter after the game, the visibility of white supremacy repeated itself ad nauseum:
(Photo Credit: Public Shaming @ Tumblr)
The Irony: Racists Are Offended the Ad’s Racism Wasn’t Racist Enough
Coca Cola’s commercials, like the one aired at the Super Bowl, are propagandized rhetoric, a mouthpiece peddling systemized oppression as liberation. The racist backlash from Coca Cola’s advertisement, therefore, stems from a branding OF white supremacy which deviates from the white-only narrative.
Building from the picture Baldwin illustrated, sheets of white opacity blanket us daily whereby, for white Americans, any skirmish away from a white dominated narrative — in this case manifested through media — is an abrupt disjoint in reality. Such an inability, or unwillingness, to deviate from the world of white supremacy speaks to a sort of normalcy that has become, in its subserviating power over individuals’ minds, totalitarian. And like all totalitarianism, a system of constant propaganda is needed to keep people in lockstep.
This is called television.
In 2006 the study Out of The Picture: Minority & Female TV Station Ownership in the United States highlighted the racial disparity, and white supremacy, of American television by analyzing the current status and the effects of FCC policy and media consolidation. Findings were as follows:
- Minorities comprise 33 percent of the entire U.S. population, but own a total of only 44 stations, or 3.26 percent of all stations.
- Hispanics or Latinos comprise 14 percent of the entire U.S. population, but only own a total of 15 stations, or 1.11 percent of all stations.
- Blacks or African Americans comprise 13 percent of the entire U.S. population but only own a total of 18 stations, or 1.3 percent of all stations.
- Asians comprise 4 percent of the entire U.S. population but only own a total of 6 stations, or 0.44 percent of all stations.
Couple these disparities with the fact that black and brown people in mainstream television often are depicted either as an afterthought, or pandering to racist stereotypes of laziness, self-destructiveness, violence, criminality, and disposability, the paradigm of white conceptions of people of color becomes grossly perverted and hostile. Thus, from within this world looking outward — even in a commercial depicting people of color as the human beings we are — it registers least of all to the white supremacist that the legal, economic, political, educational, religious, and cultural practices of all Americans might not be those of white Americans.
Economic Imperialism Re-Branded With Black & Brown Faces
"In Guatemala, Coca Cola is a name for murder."
— Israel Marquez, General Secretary of STEGAC (1979)
Knowing the racial disparities within our culture’s television and the institutions thereof, isn’t Coca Cola just being a good corporate citizen by challenging the white supremacist’s narrative of who ought to or could be considered American? At face value this commercial does seem as if Coca Cola is ‘leading the charge’ toward a post-racial America, but as usual if we use common sense we know corporations are rarely if ever altruistic.
Coca Cola is using the same institutions of white supremacy it has always used to increase market share locally and globally by re-branding its product with black and brown faces, a brand of multiculturalism that to the American mind – especially the white American mind — erases the longstanding history of corporate sponsored repression throughout the world.
Guatemala has been victim to such erasure. The world’s largest beverage supplier has been bottling in the Central American nation since 1939 through franchise contracts and affiliates, one of which was Embotelladora Guatemalteca S.A., or EGSA (owned by the Flemings, a North American family from Texas). Post the United States backed coup in 1954, Guatemalan unions had been crushed. Union representation plummeted from 27% of the working population to 2%. In this backdrop the Flemings hired John C. Trotter as company President, a feverishly anti-union anti-communist. In the years from 68’ to 87’, under Trotter’s watch EGSA unionists and their families would be marred with intimidation, constant attempts to impede workers’ collaborations, beatings, rape, kidnapping, and murder.
A booklet titled Soft Drink, Hard Labour published in 1987 by the Latin America Bureau in London, England documents the 1979 casualties between April and July as “an avalanche of killings” where at least 32 EGSA associates are beaten, 4 are kidnapped and disappear, 31 are fired, 4 wounded by gunshot, a daughter of a union lawyer is raped and tortured, and 8 are murdered. In the case of Arnulfo Gomez Segura, his lips were slashed with a razor; his tongue cut from his mouth and placed in his shirt pocket.
Per the usual corporate scapegoat, Coca Cola maintained that is had no responsibility for its affiliates’ actions. But as a campaign to boycott the Atlanta retailer wrote:
“By allowing EGSA to use your trade mark, to act as your representative in Guatemala and by deriving financial benefits from your agreement with this company, you have committed your company’s image and interest. If your license holder is seen to be directly responsible for murders and other acts of violence, threats and intimidation committed against the members of the union representing the employees of EGSA, continuing cooperation between your company and this license holder constitutes complicity.”
The multinational corporation has not learned its lesson either. KillerCoke.org reported:
“International Rights Advocates, a non-profit human rights organization, and the Conrad and Scherer law firm filed a new civil lawsuit against The Coca-Cola Company. The case was first filed in the State Supreme Court in New York on February 25, 2010, and in April it was moved to the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York (Case # 10-CIV-03120).
The case involves a campaign of violence that includes rape, attempted murder and murder against two Guatemalan trade unionists and their families. The two trade unionists are Jose Armando Palacios, who was forced to flee to the U.S. in early 2006, and Jose Alberto Vicente Chavez, whose son and nephew were murdered and whose daughter was gang raped on March 1, 2008.”
An old euphemism tried and true says all there is to know of corporate motive — follow the money. In an interview with NPR, Jimmy Smith, Creative Director at TBWA/CHIAT/DAY, inadvertently — but impeccably — put it:
“[A]dvertisers… definitely… understand that more than just white America is buying their products. So they’re trying to reach all cultures and all races, whether it’s Latino, black, Asian or, you know, Native American. It doesn’t matter. They just see that as another opportunity to sell their product.”
With a shallow motive as unabridged profiteering upon the backs of black and brown laborers, Coca Cola is but an extension of America’s white supremacy and purveyor of its economic imperialism. The sort of exploitation in Guatemala has been documented elsewhere too, in China, Columbia, El Salvador, India, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Turkey.
A House Divided Can Never Stand: Fighting White Supremacy in Global Context
"The reality is even if we took every white person on Earth and put them on a space ship and sent them to outer space white supremacy wouldn’t miss a beat."
— Junot Diaz | Facing Race (2012)
I never answered that hulking kid in front of me. By the fourth school transfer I already knew 14 year old teens cared less about my racial identity than they did figuring out what made me separate. In no time my interrogator had conjured epithets for me — “beaner,” “nacho,” “wetback,” and the most inane, “the Arabian Night-man.”
Like most multiracial teenagers my “otherness” caused me insecurities. I bought a hair straightener so my hair would appear like the normalized styles around me, long, straight, 70s’ like. School pictures meant sucking in my lips. Dating, no thanks, I just stopped trying. Not until I was 17, away from my legal guardians, starting university, working full time and on my own did I realize never would my identity be founded in what others prescribed me as. I did not know it then, but I was starting to understand what it meant to reject white supremacy, what it meant to be a man of color, even if only partially, in a white supremacist world.
And I began to understand no matter my race I am capable of replicating through my actions and behavior the systemic oppression of white supremacy. In order for us to properly defend ourselves from oppression, we must first wholeheartedly break ourselves from it and support each other in our struggle against it no matter what face it is branded. It is through this lens that we come to understand that our liberation is bound up with the liberation of all oppressed peoples. We cannot separate.