I would like to address the ‘woke’ white population directly with this notion. You know who you are. As a ‘woke’ white woman myself, I feel as though I may level fragile claims at my brothers and sisters without inquiries of my legitimacy or cultural bias bubbling to the surface. This having been said, I have a question for all of us:
Are we consciously racist?
Don’t gasp. Don’t writhe and answer my question with one of your own; “How could you ask that? Of course not.” I’m not surprised if you would rather rephrase the question as a stand-alone statement and say, “I’m not racist at all.” I’m not expecting you to say yes (and if you do, you have other issues to overcome before you read this). However, Chris Devins’ use of Gelila Mesfin’s original artwork of Michelle Obama in Chicago without her permission, and the recent Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner which co-opts the Black Lives Matter Movement for corporate gain, shows us that even if no malice was intended, many of us are subconsciously discriminatory.
The New York Times article that addresses the issue of Devins’ use of Mesfin’s artwork states that Devins “repurposed an image found online, put it on a wall and claimed it as his own” (Julious). With all the attention and money the project garnered, the original artist could have — and should have — been sharing the spotlight. Devin, a white male, not only used an artist’s work without their permission and without paying the artist for their efforts, but appropriated a powerful image of Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama, who holds degrees from two Ivy League schools, is a role model for women worldwide, and for black women even more-so. Seeing as the woman who created this artwork was, indeed, a black woman who appreciated what Mrs. Obama has accomplished in her lifetime, the appropriation by Devins’ takes away the emotion and personal connection Mesfin imbued within the work. The assumption that Devins could use this piece without backlash from the artist or the black community is privileged and discriminatory, even if that was not consciously his motive.
Likewise, Pepsi’s recent commercial which ends with Kendall Jenner handing a police officer a Pepsi during a protest in what seems to be a peace offering similarly co-opts a movement created for the black community. While allies of the black community are by no means excluded from the movement, they are not the focal point, which is one of many aspects of the commercial that is skewed negatively. Also, the commercial perpetuates a ‘white savior’ stereotype, which is commonly seen in television, film, and — now — advertisements. The crowd is seen cheering after Jenner hands the police officer a Pepsi, and it seems as though the message that is trying to be sold is, “Racism will be cured when a culturally attractive white woman hands a white male police officer our product.” Not only is the commercial an inaccurate and crude portrayal of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is a gross attempt at capitalizing on a civil rights campaign involving individuals whose basic humanity is still being denied.
Social media has been riddled with real-life parodies of this debunked theory, with people filming themselves with Pepsi cans in their hands at protests or in situations where police officers are mistreating black individuals. Often, they will run up to police liaisons at protests, or the police themselves in order to offer them a ‘peace Pepsi,’ only to be turned down. The participation from those disgruntled at the misinformation within the commercial only proves the ill-serving ‘white savior’ narrative and the underlying privilege that those who produced the advertisement experience.
The common themes in these two situations are, to reiterate, white privilege and internalized discrimination. While Pepsi has released a public apology stating that it was not intending to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement, it does not change the fact that it did just that. While Devins made a public apology, even offered the original artist a licensing fee after he “found out” he had copied it, the damage was already done (Julious). Though we may be attempting to help those with less privilege than us white folks, we still frequently forget that we live in a society that favors us. We need to check and re-check to make sure we aren’t subconsciously furthering our own aims in order to seem as though we belong on a morally higher ground while pushing the less privileged into corners instead of actually helping pave the road for equal rights, which we claim we are truly attempting to do.
Julious, Britt. “How a Mural of Michelle Obama Became a Lesson on Exploitation.” The New York Times, New York. 26 April 2017. Web. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/26/ opinion/how-a-mural-of-michelle-obama-became-a-lesson-on-exploitation.html. 3 May 2017.
Kendall and Kylie. “Kendall Jenner for PEPSI Commercial.” Youtube. 4 April 2017. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dA5Yq1DLSmQ. 3 May 2017.
Mesfin, Gelila. Title Unknown. Salon. 24 April 2017. Photo. http://www.salon.com/2017/04/24/chicago-muralist-claims-black-womans-stunning-michelle-obama-image-as-his-own/
Note: Please send me feedback on your views on this subject. I would love to be educated further, and would appreciate resources that can help me become a more conscious social citizen. Thank you.