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.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. 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.
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.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.