Colin Kaepernick, Corporate America and the Multicultural Future

Now that multinationals have decided minorities own the future, do diversity progressives have to rethink the culture/power paradigm? 

September 18, 2018

One of the most eye-opening assignments of my undergraduate years was to watch three hours of prime-time network television, log every commercial and reflect on the general story that corporate America was telling the nation.

In the class discussion the day after, the professor emphasized that while politicians generally craft their messages to appeal to the immediate concerns of likely voters, corporate America is in the business of owning both the present and the future. Their goal is to develop brand loyalty in the key demographic of 18-49 year olds in the hopes that their products will be purchased both now and many years from now.

One of the things that we talked about in Professor Landay’s class was how white the commercials felt compared to the multiculturalism that was the University of Illinois in the mid-1990s. It felt like corporate America had not yet caught up to the shift in both demographics and tastes that was already a reality on American campuses. 

That is no longer true.

Pay attention to the commercials during prime time these days and it seems obvious that corporate America has a really good idea about the future.

Consider this sample:

  • A relaxed Serena taking a jog through a funky outdoor market and using her Chase app to purchase a necklace she likes;
  • An intense Serena staring straight at the camera and channeling L.L Cool J saying ‘Momma’s Gonna Knock You Out’ (one of my favorite songs);
  • A mellow Colin Kaepernick in an impressive afro set against a city scene encouraging people to dream crazy dreams as a reel of largely female and minority athletes (Lebron, Serena, a black wrestler with no legs, a black football player with one hand, a girl who is both homecoming queen and a linebacker) achieve great things;
  • A hipster-nerdy white guy coming across a minority family who can’t agree on the music to play at their barbecue. He helps them with their tech issues and then puts in a vote for old reggaeton.

I resonate with these scenes, this music, these characters. They speak in the rhythms that I’m familiar with, reference songs I like, walk on streets that I recognize, nod at political views that I generally hold.

I’m a highly educated brown guy who lives in a city. Is it not abundantly clear that corporate America is signaling to the nation that the future belongs to people like me?

Look closely at this commercial by Apple for the Mac.

I see these characters every day. The chic women of color who are launching companies, the black writer trying to get a line in a poem just right, the ponytailed chef-owner figuring out what micro-roastery has the choicest espresso beans this season. These are the people who populate my world on the north side of Chicago.  

Anybody in that Mac commercial look like they live in Cracker Barrel America and work at a steel mill or in a coal mine? Anybody look like a small town cop?

What’s the message that these commercials are sending to those folks?

There is simply no question that corporate America has a clear sense of where the puck is going – an urban, hipster, multicultural future – and is aggressively skating to it.

A part of me is celebrating. After all, I grew up not seeing myself on television, so to see my world on commercial after commercial, well, what’s not to like?

A part of me wonders how it feels to be someone else, those people who are in uncool America, working the jobs and living the lives that Apple commercials don’t feature. That’s who Paul Simon had in mind when he wrote the song Wristband:

The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can’t afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you’ll never get a wristband

And through it all I’ve got questions about culture and power.

Culture and power are central concepts for diversity progressives. Think Foucault, Bourdieu, Said, bell hooks, the Frankfurt school. The big idea here is that cultural portrayals and patterns have immense socio-political power. The way the "Orient" is imagined facilitates colonialism.

Perhaps because of this analysis, the kind of power that diversity progressives have sought (over the past couple of generations at least) is cultural power - the pages of the The New Yorker, professorships at Harvard, slots in cool film festivals. Consider that battle won.  

As the Swet Shop Boys rap:

Trump want my exit, but if he presses a red button

To watch Netflix, bruv, I’m on

One of the upsides of this approach is that your worldview can dominate The New Yorker and you can still claim to be part of the cultural resistance. The New Yorker is elite but, relatively speaking, small.

But Nike, Apple and Chase Bank are not small. They shape attitudes and worldviews at a mass level. Commercial radio and Hollywood blockbusters do too. All of these massive engines of cultural power are pumping out the same messages. Those brown kids you dismissed as having funny names, weird religions and smelly food, we might have been on the margins thirty years ago, but we are very much at the center now. This is the age of Beyonce and Black Panther. There might be a cretin in the White House, but the culture is ours.  

The trouble with this is not just who is left out, but how the people who are now on the inside understand themselves.

Because culture/power is not just a dispassionate analytical paradigm, it is a moral stance, an advocacy movement, an intervention intended to authorize a particular group of people to overthrow their colonizers and claim their agency. I remember reading the aforementioned writers as an undergraduate and feeling both righteous and empowered in the process. To be marginalized and oppressed was to be honorable and virtuous. 

But the empire has not only struck back, it is strutting it on prime time. This has to affect how you teach Orientalism, right? 


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