By now, everyone’s heard of the Coca Cola commercial that aired during the Super Bowl and the racist response it provoked from right wing politicians, tweeters, bloggers and news personalities. Former Representative Allen West said that the ad promoted “the balkanization of America” and that the use of non-English languages was fundamentally un-American. Glenn Beck echoed his sentiments, asserting that depicting America’s ethnic and linguistic diversity advocated disunity and was meant to “divide us politically.” Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham took this opportunity to use the slur “illegal” against undocumented individuals, reflecting the larger debate on immigration and the resulting nationalist anxieties.
They were joined in by dozens of other Americans displeased with Coca Cola’s apparently multicultural agenda, some users resorting to using racial slurs and other racially charged appellations like “terrorist.”
Because of its original multilingual and multicultural content and the right-wing vitriol it incurred, people are lauding the Coca Cola commercial a triumph for antiracism and media representation. Many users on Twitter and the general blogosphere praised the commercial as a way to counteract the online racism against it. Forbes went so far as to connect it to immigration reform in Congress and branded the commercial “a huge success.” On the surface, it definitely seems to be in favor for people of color. After all, it represents and humanizes people of different ethnicities, it normalizes their oft-erased or vilified languages, it affirms the American-ness of a girl in hijab and it even depicts an interracial gay couple, striking two marginalized identities at the same time. The ad is a seeming godsend; what could possibly be wrong with it?
There is, however, a critical similarity in both the Coca Cola ad and the rhetoric of the conservatives who attacked it. Both support American patriotism and the racism it produces albeit in different ways. Even Amy Davidson of The New Yorker, a proponent of the commercial, affirms, “. . .the Coke ad was. . . in the better sense, patriotic.”
The Intersection of American Patriotism with Multiculturalism
The Coca Cola ad opened with “America the Beautiful” and the patriotic song played throughout the rest of the ad in several different languages, including Keres, an indigenous language, all of which are spoken in the United States. It was reminiscent of the larger patriotic theme pushed by liberal integrationists, antiracism activists and multiculturalists: America is a melting pot, constituted of immigrated peoples whose diversity binds the richness of the nation and both literally and figuratively makes America. This theme invokes the verses written by Russian immigrant Emma Lazarus, which are inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” There is nothing more consummately American than immigration. This melting pot multiculturalism diverges from the assimilationist model that tends to Americanize immigrated diasporas.
This emerging narrative, for all its idealism, ignores the sinister but absolute fact of America’s inception, which is the genocide of several million Native Americans, the colonization of their land, and their persisting disenfranchisement (see David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World). Every immigrant and descendant of immigrants is a beneficiary of settler colonialism, the feasible exception being Mexicans and other people of indigenous ancestry. (As acclaimed Spokane writer Sherman Alexie summed it up, “Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mexican immigration is an oxymoron. Mexicans are indigenous.”) The other exception entails African Americans, whose ancestors’ arrival in both colonial and democratic America was deployed against their will with the transatlantic slave trade.
Melting pot multiculturalism is therefore designed to integrate people into the American fabric without dismantling the country’s oppressive structures, including the genocidal legacy that enabled its founding. It also seeks to assimilate nonwhite minorities into its hegemony, either as agents or passive victims. Barack Obama is frequently cited as proof of a post-racial America, his evident blackness obscuring his regressive and harmful policies. His systematic increase in drone strikes, the accelerated rate of deportations of undocumented people, and his deployment of troops to Afghanistan, Uganda, Libya and Mali enact violence on people of color, be they at home or abroad.
This hyper-visibility of nonwhite minorities in media, government, business and other leadership positions disguises the systematic nature of racism and limits it to an individual, even isolated phenomenon. The conservatives and American nationalists repulsed by this ad are constructed as the zealot minority of the American populace by media, even if state policy and other institutional elements enforce their perceptions. This racism in a way is worst than more blatant iterations, because it is more insidious and more difficult to discern and confront. Most debilitatingly, it appeases people agitating for genuine social change by subduing their radical, antiestablishment tendency. The Coca Cola commercial does the same thing. By tokenizing various nonwhite faces, hijab-clad girls, and the assorted languages of these people through a multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful”, it promotes the American patriotism that produces and continually perpetuates systems of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Coke fails to challenge hegemonic narratives of patriotism, but merely gives it a diverse face. The commercial embodies multiculturalism as defined by Japanese-Canadian feminist scholar Setsu Shigematsu, that is “a policy of selective inclusion of racial and ethnic ‘minorities,’ to promote an image of diversity, obscuring continuing forms of structural inequities and institutional racism.”
It’s fitting, of course. The foremost inequity that Coca Cola masks with its diverse imagery is its own egregious capitalism and neocolonialism in global southern countries.
“Multiculturalism As a Tool for Corporate America”: Coca Cola and Global Capitalism
In her incisive critique of multiculturalism, “The Paradox of Diversity” featured in the essay anthology The Dark Side of the Nation, Marxist feminist sociologist Himani Bannerji engages with the work of civil rights legend Angela Davis. She writes, “A scathing critique of multiculturalism as a tool for corporate America, both in terms of its internal diversity management and international capitalism or globalization, features in the essays. . . by Angela Davis.” Nothing is more applicable to Coca Cola, which used multiculturalism and curried praise of progress despite being a neocolonialist, capitalist organization.
Coca Cola’s tokenism of minorities diverts attention from the company’s worldwide employment of sweatshop labor and theft of water that local populations rely on for subsistence. It’s easy for Coca Cola to make a commercial partially in Hindi, but are people familiar with their disastrous history in India? In 2006, Indian farmers in the state of Rajasthan could not irrigate their fields because of a Coke plant. In Kerala, the company contaminated local water. It currently has 58 plants in Uttar Pradesh that induce water depletion and are a major source of contention for native Indians. What makes Coca Cola’s crimes worst is that they’re exercised on vulnerable, impoverished populations that are disproportionately poorer than those in the global north.
The company is also responsible for abuses of workers’ rights. Besides sweatshop labor, Coke has displayed horrific anti-union activity in Colombia, which culminated in illegal murder. It’s exercised similar machinations in other parts of Latin America. It has an abundant history of racial discrimination, some of which were as recent as 2012. Given Coca Cola’s disgraceful and publicized track record, it’s readily apparent their multicultural ad wasn’t evident of a crusade in favor of minorities, but served the specific purpose of abating criticism and lobbying that can lead to a change in their widespread human rights abuses.
By filming a multilingual, multicultural commercial seemingly on the side of minorities, Coca Cola screens its past and current abuses and allocates the discussion on its racial abuse to its commercial. The culprit, the oppressor, is not the beverage company, but merely the right-wing zealots, who are hindering the purveyor of true progress, Coca Cola. The response from liberal media only affirms this, and the impact of the commercial is over-stated. Contrary to Forbes, the commercial will probably not move Congress. Coke only advocates a softer American nationalism, that is less hawkish, but no less jingoistic. Its message is loud and clear: Spanish is only valued when it’s being used to sing patriotic music.
Coca Cola attempts to compensate with this ad, but a short and insubstantial film cannot compensate for water depletion, employee discrimination, ban on unions, the murder of workers by armed gangs, theft of natural resources and engineered starvation. In a way, the ad is symptomatic of the larger culture of feel-good liberal diversity that reduces faces of color to lifeless tokens and refuses to grant them rights and agency. The marketing towards minorities is also counterproductive. Jill Filipovic of The Guardian notes marketing soda to poorer, vulnerable communities of color only increases health risks among them.
A multinational corporation, Coca Cola is responsible for terrible human rights abuses and continues to commit them with relative impunity even in the face of criticism. Angela Davis’ thesis has come true. Multiculturalism has become an effective tool for corporate America, both in marketing, silencing criticism of capitalism and validating the continued perpetuation of its crimes. Parts of the antiracist American public have been duped into viewing the ad as progressive, and it’s probably the defanging of radical tendency that is the saddest outcome of Coke’s commercial. By placating progressives with a multicultural commercial, their activism weakens, and true change is prevented from materializing.