Do all those mixed-race couples on TV count for anything?

Like I’ve discussed a few times on this blog (like here and here), the past couple years have not been America’s proudest in terms of race relations. Regardless of whether you feel the nation’s actual situation has worsened, or rather that greater transparency and awareness are revealing more clearly how bad that situation has always been, one thing is for sure; Americans are feeling a greater level of anxiety around race than they did just a few years ago. A Gallup poll recently found that 35% of respondents worry “a great deal” about race relations in the country, the most since the organization started asking the question 15 years ago.

The great irony here is that even as Americans’ collective anxiety over race has risen, our society’s most vital institution — the nuclear family — is more racially integrated than ever before. A generation ago, about one-in-a hundred babies born in America could be considered multiracial; that number is now about one-in-ten. Not surprisingly, our attitudes about interracial marriage have dramatically changed as well. Back in 1958 just 4% of Americans said they approved of black-white marriage. Today that number is 87%.

But never mind all that for a moment. Let’s talk about something that really matters: TV commercials. Because the way I see it, the number of interracial romances, families and friendships you see on TV says a lot about American attitudes towards race.

I’m not aware of any quantifiable data on this (I’m either too lazy or too unskilled to find it, if it exists), but it seems to me there’s been an explosion of racial diversity in the past few years in commercials as well as print and electronic advertising. A couple years back General Mills sparked conversation with a TV spot for Cheerios that featured a white mom, a black dad, and their adorable biracial kid, a decision which somehow stirred controversy and nearly made racist internet trolls’ heads explode. But since then, there’s been an unusual number of mixed race couples and families in mainstream advertising which have seamlessly blended in to the landscape. Both American Airlines and Amazon, I noticed, recently had promotional images on their websites of black-and-white couples (in the case of the latter, with their biracial kids). Ford ran a commercial for its Escape SUV featuring a pretty black girl with a beaming smile camping with her white boyfriend, accompanied by Rachel Patten’s “This is My Fight Song” in the background. Another ad by JBL features young, attractive joggers, one white and the other black, exchanging subtly flirtatious glances over the subject of tangled headphone wires. For a while USA Today has run a TV commercial of a handsome Indian-looking guy and nerdy-but-cute blonde chatting casually on a park bench. Keep in mind these are just the ads I’ve actually seen and can remember off hand. Needless to say there are many more. None of them alone is earthshaking, but together they say something significant, I would say.

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Screenshots from the websites of American Airlines (above) and Amazon (below).

There are subtle changes happening in movies as well that mirror these trends, even at a time when the Oscars has been notoriously criticized for a lack of ethnic diversity in its nominees. Take for example the career arc of Will Smith, who for years has been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Even though he is universally recognized as one of the industry’s hottest sex symbols, it’s telling that for the bulk of Will Smith’s career his films barely acknowledged his sexuality, and even when they did, he was only allowed on-camera romances with non-white actresses. It took until 2015’s otherwise forgettable Focus for him to kiss a white woman in a movie. Don’t get too wrapped up in the travesty of an actor as handsome and charming as Will Smith being needlessly bottled up for all those years. Instead, let us acknowledge the fact that last year, Warner Brothers finally saw it as financially lucrative to expose American moviegoers to two hours of him in love with a smoking hot Margo Robbie.

To be clear, movies or advertising companies or whoever else who put interracial couples front-and-center are not doing so out of some sense of civic duty or expression of high-minded ideals. This is about money. But making money in this case is about recognizing and responding to consumer tastes, and the fact that advertisers are so much more likely to feature mixed-race couples and families than they used to be is undoubtedly the result of painstaking research and careful insight suggesting this strategy now works with the broad American public. Do not for a second think this is an accident; multiple companies are clearly concluding that consumers will react positively to different races of people meshed together in the same ad, movie, or whatever.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical of this trend’s importance and its actual impact on people’s lives. Even I find it curious that pop culture now seems to have a fascination with black women coupled with white men. (Indeed, that’s the set up for many of the TV spots mentioned above.) In that sense, one could be tempted to brush the trend off as just a shallow fad. And even when companies seek to make a statement of multiculturalism in their ads, sometimes they miss the mark badly and their efforts have exactly the opposite effect, as was the case just a few weeks ago when The Gap released an ad showing a white child model awkwardly resting her elbow on her black counterpart.

The heavier and more serious criticism, of course, is that even as our pop culture changes, real life racism, from criminal justice to bank lending, has its roots planted deep in this country’s social soil. We do not, in fact, live in a so-called “post-racial” America. Nonetheless, even as it’s important to be real about our nation’s shortcomings when it comes to race, I think it’s far too easy to be negative and dismissive about how the country is changing, both in terms of demographics and attitudes.

Abdu’l-Baha said of America’s race problem nearly a century ago that “marriage between these two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity” between blacks and whites. That surely isn’t an overnight solution, nor is it a solution all on its own. But reflect on the tenfold increase in the proportion of multiracial kids being born in America, and imagine the effect it’s sure to exert on how we recognize and value eachother over the next one, two, or three generations. The increasing regularity and social acceptance of mixed-race couples and families isn’t just an ancillary story in America’s broader racial narrative. This is about drowning racism in the purest form of human love: that shared between man, woman, and child.

Even as we recognize where we continue to fail as a country, let’s acknowledge the positive. Who we date, marry, and have children with is changing rapidly and for the better. And increasingly, our pop culture suggests our attitudes are changing as well.

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The top five Fruit Tree Blog posts of 2015

Thank you to all the readers and supporters of Fruit Tree Blog as we close out another year.

In case you missed them (or just feel like reading them again), here are the top five blog posts of 2015:

1) The dirty secret behind Europe’s migrant crisis 

Aging and shrinking populations in much of the developed world have a simple solution: young, able-bodied workers from developing countries.

2) This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

Recognizing the importance of trust and honesty in keeping the wheels of our economy churning.

3) Let the mystery be

A Leftovers junkie learns to accept mystery when it comes to life’s great questions.

4) America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

What we can do as individuals to help heal the disease of racism.

5) Why I’m so pumped about Andy Grammer

Celebrating the young Baha’i musician’s success in an era of artistic cynicism.

Here’s to 2016. Much love and Happy New Year to all.

-“Ed”

To defeat racism and bigotry, make friends with some racists and bigots

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When I was in 7th grade, my classmate’s father died of cancer. He took some time away from school, and during that time, my mother encouraged me to express my condolences to him when he got back. Being naive and stubborn, I resisted. “I’ll be reminding him of the fact his dad died, and just make him feel worse,” I argued. My mother responded that I didn’t understand, and that people appreciate these gestures, however simple, when they experience loss. And besides, she told me, it was my duty to acknowledge it. To pretend that nothing had happened would be much worse.

My friend eventually came back to school. In the days following, he tended to sit near the back of the classroom. He was more subdued and quiet than before, and rarely talked in class. I never expressed my condolences, or even acknowledged that he’d lost his dad. It’s hard to remember why, but I think I was scared of how he’d feel and how he’d receive the gesture. Maybe I was scared I’d say the wrong thing, say something stupid.

I was reminded of this episode a couple years ago after a string of highly-publicized instances of violence against black people in America. It had been a depressing series of events, culminating with Eric Garner’s now famous “I can’t breathe” chokehold-induced heart attack at the hands of the NYPD. The nation, it seemed, had reached a racial boiling point, a fragile equilibrium where smoldering suspicion and anger could explode in unpredictable directions.

In many ways, these events felt to me like a friend’s relative had died. I myself was saddened and afraid; how much worse must the feeling be, I wondered, for my black friends and colleagues experiencing these spectacles in a much more personal way? I didn’t want to make the same mistake I did as a kid, to continue on and ignore it, to pretend that nothing had changed. Somehow, I wanted to acknowledge the obvious. I wanted to express my condolences.

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Whoever said “fight fire with fire” didn’t properly understand the concept of fire

When I was a kid, a handful of English language expressions baffled me. I distinctly remember, for instance, a second grade classmate using the phrase “That’ll be the day” in school. The entire class seemed to burst out laughing while I looked around confused. Maybe it was because my parents were immigrants, and we didn’t tend to use a lot of English slang and idioms in our house. But who knows.

One expression which I still don’t get is “Fight fire with fire”. I understand how and why people use it, of course. It’s to suggest that sometimes it’s best to resist a particular force with the same kind of force. But why fire? I always knew, for instance, that water put out fire, not more fire. One of my favorite books as a little boy was Mr Strong, in which the hero douses a panicked farmer’s burning crops with a barn full of river water, earning him a bounty of fresh eggs (it’s kind of a weird book). In any case, you can imagine that as a kid, when even little things lead to puzzlement and provoke curiosity, this was a major dilemma.  I was reminded of this recently when I once again came across Abdu’l-Baha’s oft-quoted passage about resisting the temptation to meet anger and aggression with more of the same. In a talk in Paris in October 1912, he said (my emphasis added):

I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content…

If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men.

In other words, Abdu’l-Baha’s injunction was the very antithesis of “fight fire with fire”. It was very much “fight fire with water”. Negativity, aggression, hostility, suspicion, conflict — these things can never be extinguished with equal and opposite force. The conflagration only seems to flail from side to side, only to violently spread in new directions.

I bring this up only because I sense this approach — simply put, to overwhelm hatred with love — is increasingly coming to be seen as quaint and passe. It wasn’t always like that; think of the best-known songs of the 1960s, for instance, for a sense of how that generation approached the great conflicts of the day. The Youngbloods’ iconic Get together, still popping up on the radio today, is just one example. It starts:

Love is but a song to sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may not know why

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

Is there anywhere in pop culture where this sentiment is currently being echoed? Are there any prominent political or social leaders championing that approach? Today, our public problems are seen through the lens of one party’s triumph over another, doubling-down on futile, tail-chasing political conflict. Our national debate on race is laced with anger, as if centuries-old prejudice can be wiped away with the right amount of outrage. Issues of international security are boiled down to how best to destroy violent fanaticism with violent explosions.

Fighting fire with fire has never made sense. And it never will.

America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

A couple Saturdays ago, my wife and I hosted a prayer gathering and discussion in our home on the subject of “race, society, and spirituality”. We read some sacred writings together and prayed, watched a short video, and had a discussion over some good food. People shared their personal anecdotes and experiences along with their heartache, their joy, and their concern about where we are going as a nation and as a human race. A friend whose dad is Kenyan, mom is white, and step dad is Persian told of a childhood of conflicted identity growing up in Upstate New York. A Polish immigrant shared her experiences of living in America for the past decade. A black neighbor told us about raising a daughter in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood in Greenwich, CT after growing up in Harlem. A Jew from Brooklyn shared his sadness over the needless suffering currently being felt in Israel and Palestine.

The two of us have hosted these prayer gatherings/discussions sporadically in our home for the past few years, but more recently we’d been contemplating dedicating an evening to the topic of race in particular. One reason is that unity is perhaps the single most important theme in the Baha’i Faith — Baha’u’llah once declared that “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole earth” — and thus opposing racism and prejudice naturally becomes an important component of being Baha’is in America. But this wasn’t the only reason. The other was that the two of us have become tired of listening to friends and colleagues decry racism without an eye towards an actual solution, and in tones that seemed to accomplish nothing more than to fan the flames of suspicion and distrust.

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Some thoughts on Martin Luther King and economic justice

Recently I was driving home late at night from a long road trip, flipping around the radio dial. Randomly, I stumbled upon a radio station playing a speech from Dr Martin Luther King. It turned out to be his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop“, delivered in April of 1968.

This speech is famous in part because it was Dr King’s last public address. He was shot dead the following day in a Memphis, TN motel. Almost prophetically, King wrapped up his speech on the eve of his death with these words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I had never heard the famous “Mountaintop” speech and I found it powerful and haunting for the obvious reasons. But a couple of other themes struck me, themes which I think resonated with me in particular as a Baha’i.

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