Tag Archives: advertising

Yes, actually, they DO know it’s Christmas: Imperialism and the holidays

My least favorite Christmas songs involve people feeling sorry for other people.  There’s no better way to encourage smug self-satisfaction about your superior life than listening to songs where people buy shoes for little boys who have mothers with cancer.  At least the shoe song is about local, face-to-face charity.  The all-time most annoying Christmas song, in my opinion, is Bob Geldof’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, a world-wide smash hit and Christmas Number One in the UK.  I know that I am not supposed to hate this song, because all the profits went to help sick and starving children in Africa—not once, but three times (it was re-recorded in 2004 and 2014, both times as charity singles).  But this song embodies for me all that is wrong with formerly (?) imperial countries and the way that they understand the world.

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An image from Iceland’s banned Christmas advert–perhaps the orangutan isn’t starving enough?

First, there is the idea that white westerners must save the Africans.  This is problematic on two separate accounts.  One, it ignores the fact that white, western countries stripped African countries of people and resources for hundreds of years through colonialism, and continue to do so—just ask the UK supermarket chain Iceland, whose Christmas advert heralding their ban on palm oil, the harvesting of which destroys orangutan habitats, was banned for being “too political” (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/09/iceland-christmas-tv-ad-banned-political-greenpeace-orangutan).  Nowhere in Geldof’s song does it suggest that Britain might help Africa because Britain helped cause the problem in the first place.  Two, even if you quibble with the notion that European colonialism continues to affect African countries, the idea that Africans need pity (rather than, say, economic development, fair trading practices, or reparations) perpetuates a racial hierarchy that is often felt much closer to home in the UK or US.  Several children’s books written by people of colour detail the humiliation of being compared with “pitiable” Africans; Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s semi-autobiographical Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995), for example, includes a school lesson about the famine in Biafra (1967-1970).  After hearing from Sister Agnes tell the class that “We in the West are fortunate to have fertile land, enough food, water and wealth . . . We must help those who are less fortunate” (29), Hope watches the pictures of the Biafran famine with horror and shame.  “How could Grandpa be proud to be descended from Africans?” (29) she asks.  Then she realizes that the rest of her class associates the starving children with her, even though she is from Jamaica: “I was the only black girl in the class and everyone looked at me” (29).  Hope’s classmates learn the lesson that it is acceptable to be racist, as long as you are charitable while doing so.  As Bono famously sings in the Geldof song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The linking of race and poverty (consciously or not) is the most egregious of problems with “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” but it is not the only one.  Simplistic attitudes toward “the world outside your window” range from the idea that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (it actually does snow in Ethiopia, although not in the plains); to the idea that all Africans would care if they knew it was Christmas (about a quarter of the population is Muslim, to say nothing of other non-Christian religions); to the idea that if people don’t have the consumer trappings of a Western-style Christmas, then they will not recognize the day as Christmas.  Rachel Isadora’s The Night Before Christmas (Putnam 2009) tries to counter some of the stereotypical attitudes toward Africa by resetting Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in Africa.  Her dreadlocked Santa visits a family in Africa, bringing snow in his wake and providing presents from his sack.  Isadora, who is white American, lived in Africa for ten years, and has redone a number of traditional European and American tales by placing them in African settings; and although I think they are designed more to counter those naïve stereotypes about people in Africa for white people than I think they are for Africans themselves, it is still nice to see a book with a Black Santa on the cover.

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There will be snow in Africa–and Santa Claus too.

I thought about imperialism and its continuing effects too when I saw the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s A Doll for Navidades (Scholastic 2005), which shows two brown girls cuddling a white doll.  Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, and illustrator Enrique O. Sanchez, who is Dominican, did not accidentally depict a white, blonde, blue-eyed baby doll.  The story is based on an incident from Santiago’s own childhood, when she longed for a doll like her cousin had and specifically requested the blonde blue-eyed baby as a present.  This recalls Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1950 “doll test” in which all children of any colour who were offered white dolls or black dolls chose the white dolls.  The experiment was used as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to demonstrate the effects of systemic racism on children’s self-image.  Two of my former students—one Puerto Rican and one Dominican, as it happens—are currently looking in to what it means to have “national” children’s literatures in places where the shadow of imperialism (economic, political and cultural) still affects people on a daily basis.  What is interesting to me about Santiago’s book is that, while she allowed the white baby doll to remain, and titled the book A Doll for Navidades (Christmas), the book itself focuses on the difference between an American concept of Christmas and the Puerto Rican traditions.

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Giving the readers what they expect? Santiago doesn’t get the doll, and she doesn’t get anything for Christmas, because gift-giving in her Puerto Rican childhood happened in January.

The main character does not ask Santa for the doll, nor does she get gifts at Christmas.  The family go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and eat traditional dishes on Christmas Day, but the gift-givers are the Three Kings, and the gift-receiving day is January 6th (their feast day).  Again, these are, I believe, deliberate choices.  Santiago, writing for an American audience, allows readers to think they are getting a story that mimics American stories of writing to Santa with demands—but then, without fuss, gives a story that introduces other customs.  Further, the main character does not get the doll because her family cannot afford it; but this is not a story of wretched poverty and reluctant self-sacrifice.  Her sister gets the doll, and—seeing the protagonist’s disappointment—asks her to be godmother to the doll.  The children had learned to desire the consumer object made in a white western mode, but tradition and familial love made Christmas (and Three Kings’ Day) a memorable feast.

In Color: Photographic Images and BAME Children in Literature

This week, Kendall Jenner and Pepsi became embroiled in a controversy over an ad that depicted Ms. Jenner joining a protest march (after ditching her blonde wig—an interesting detail for thinking about issues of how race is presented). Jenner and Pepsi were mocked by multiple individuals and organizations for co-opting protest movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial reasons (not that they are the first to ever do such things—would you Like to Buy the World a Coke?) and for suggesting that good relations between police and protestors could be achieved with a can of pop (you can see the ad here and judge for yourself: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Kendall+Jenner+Pepsi+ad&&view=detail&mid=6648928C17BBA4A303386648928C17BBA4A30338&FORM=VRDGAR). Even Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., commented on the ad on Twitter, saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/06/martin-luther-kings-daughter-gives-perfect-response-kendall/).

 Perhaps Pepsi we thinking of the success of another pop advertisement that co-opted teenage movements–image from the 1971 commercial wanting to bring peace and love through buying the world a Coke.

One of the frequent commentaries on the advert was the suggestion that perhaps if Pepsi had involved the Black community (or the Muslim community, or the Asian community, or any community) not just in the making of the commercial but in its conception that someone, somewhere would have said, hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea. People in a position of privilege (often from the dominant, which is to say white, group) should be aware that diversity is not something (blond-wigged Kendall) that can be put on or taken off; it requires a deep and regular commitment in listening to people from BAME communities, even if what they are saying is not always comfortable or familiar.

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Roxy Harris’s Being Black showed Black Panthers, but no guns . . .

Following several incidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the UK, to which BAME communities responded by protesting (both peacefully and, in the case of the Brixton Riot of 1981, not so peacefully) against the unjust oppression of the state, there was a rise in photographic picture books depicting BAME people. Some, primarily for older readers, tried to document the struggles of Black people, both in and out of the UK. For example, Roxy Harris’s Being Black (1981), which excerpted Black Panthers George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and combined the extracts with questions and commentary for young people. Harris, in the introduction, writes, “In Britain, blacks have been generally absent from the mainstream newspapers, as well as from TV and radio programmes. As a consequence, they have grown accustomed to being swamped by white commentators’ interpretations and definitions of the black political, economic, social and cultural experience” (4). The book is illustrated with photographs, and the choice of those photographs is telling. Not one picture of armed Black Panthers—the common image in the media. Although several protests are shown in the book, the only one depicting the Black Power salute includes both white and Black people. Harris’s book is a deliberate attempt to change the image of Black Power and Black Panthers through photographs, without diminishing the power of the Black community as an irritant to white power structures.

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. . . Harris did depict the Black Power salute, but rather than using it to isolate or “other” Black people, Black Power is shown as something that white people, particularly young people, agreed that Black people should have.

For younger readers, photographic picture books often provided a similar antidote to media images of BAME communities—not with regard to protests, but in terms of everyday living. The Peckham Publishing Project, a community-based publisher, produced several photographic books that challenged media images of BAME people as foreigners or outsiders who did not want to accept “British values” or a British way of life. One of these was the wordless Our Kids (1984), which depicted ordinary activities of British BAME families. Although there are no protests, as in Being Black, Our Kids nonetheless counters stereotypes about BAME families and about education in BAME communities. The book depicts involved fathers, parents reading to their children, and BAME professionals (such as doctors) working in their communities.

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Peckham Publishing Project’s Our Kids shows BAME professionals working in their communities.

Being Black and Our Kids come from projects initiated by BAME communities themselves, but that is not to say that white people cannot participate in redefining the dominant media images of minority communities if they are committed to spending time in and with those communities. Joan Solomon, a photographer and creative writer, grew up in South Africa under apartheid; while she lived there, she taught creative writing to Black students in Soweto. She left South Africa and came to London, where in 1978 she began teaching English as a foreign language to immigrant communities. She also began producing children’s books, first for Hamish Hamilton and then for Evans, about life in Britain for BAME children. In these books, Solomon challenges stereotypes about BAME communities primarily through her images. The cover of the 1978 A Day by the Sea (Hamish Hamilton), for example, puts a Black child on a very obviously British (rather than Caribbean) beach, digging with a spade. The opening image of Sweet-Tooth Sunil (Evans 1984) has the title character standing in front of a British fireplace-converted-to-an-electric heater, with Indian sweets and Hindu images on the table in front of him. Both photographs are powerful images, placing BAME people as an everyday part of British society, not as exotic and/or temporary interlopers. By taking the time to go into the homes of BAME British families and talking with them—the book’s publication page thanks the family portrayed in the book “for their hospitality and generous help”—Solomon avoids one of the common problems of multicultural texts of this era, that of deciding between presenting only the “foreignness” of people or erasing all cultural markers to allow BAME people to “belong” in British society.

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A very British home: Joan Solomon’s books show BAME families as a part of Britain’s everyday life, without eliding their cultural uniqueness. From Sweet-Tooth Sunil.

Images are powerful, and images that portray people through film or photographs have a way of suggesting truth—especially when they are repeated in the media over and over. Pepsi has apologized for its “misstep” with its Kendall Jenner advertisement. The company said it was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” which is of course not a bad thing. But you can’t impose global understanding without trying to understand the people you want to reach.