Question of the Month:

Dunkin Donuts and Blackface

September 2013

Q:   What the hell is wrong with you? I am tired of people like you complaining about racist donut ads or racist car commercials or racist this-that-or-the-other. The donut ad would only offend a person who was himself racist.

--Edgar Mursemer- Michigan

Don't see color

A:  There is a Dunkin Donuts franchise in Thailand. I did not know this until I received an email from Beth Greenfield, a reporter with Yahoo.com. She informed me that the Thailand Dunkin Donuts franchise had used a woman in blackface for their Charcoal (Chocolate) Donut campaign, and she wanted to know "What is it about the use of blackface that causes such a negative reaction with Americans?" She concluded her email by asking, "Does the ad seem appropriate to you?" After reading her email, I went to the Internet and searched for the story.

The Thailand Dunkin Donuts campaign was both a television and print promotion. In the television advertisement, a woman with light skin eats the chocolate donut and morphs into a woman with shiny black skin, bright pink lips, with a 1950s-style beehive hairdo. To see the short advertisement, view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQMKqeHgEEs. The woman, her skin darkened, also appeared on many posters in public places. The posters included the slogan-translated from Thai-that reads, "Break every rule of deliciousness." To view the poster visit, http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/dunkin-donuts-apologizes-racist-thai-campaign-article-1.1442463.

I discovered what one often discovers about racial imagery, namely, that it offends some people and does not offend others. Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, condemned the campaign. "It's both bizarre and racist that Dunkin' Donuts thinks that it must color a woman's skin black and accentuate her lips with bright pink lipstick to sell a chocolate doughnut," said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "Dunkin' Donuts should immediately withdraw this ad, publicly apologize to those it's offended and ensure this never happens again." Nadim Salhani, the CEO for Dunkin' Donuts in Thailand, was not initially apologetic, saying, "We're not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don't get it. What's the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?"

I called Greenfield, the reporter, and we discussed my views about the advertisement campaign. We talked about whether I considered the imagery offensive. I said yes, I did, because it was in the tradition of the blackface imagery that appeared on 19th and 20th century performance stages in the United States.

For much of this country's history, it was safe to mock African Americans-and one of the most popular methods of disrespecting black people was through blackface. This is not news to anyone who knows American history. Whites blackened their faces, pretended to be black people, and then acted as buffoons. This is what I mean when I say that blackface "taps into the long tradition of whites being safe to escape their whiteness." The escape was temporary. It was done to remove the cultural restraints against middle-class white people acting as fools and idiots. When the performances were over, the performers returned to their socially approved roles, leaving behind a trail of anti-black insults.

It is clear that my comments struck a nerve. I received emails similar to the one that you sent. Including this one:

"For real? You are out of your damn mind!!! Ever seen people that work in a coal mine? Just like the ad!!! It's about coal as in charcoal! Not racist at all what a joke! Educated? I think not! Way to go Ferris State !!"

It seems to me that these emails share much in common, including this inference: "If something does not offend me, then it should not offend you." That sentiment has always struck me as...well, arrogant, especially when it comes from people who are members of a dominant group, meaning a group which possesses a disproportionately large amount of the power, wealth, and status in society.

Think of the controversy about the Washington Redskins, the professional football team in our nation's capital. The name is a racial slur; however, Daniel Snyder, the team's owner, recently stated, "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER - you can use caps." Amanda Blackhorse, who is Navajo and the named plaintiff in a federal trademark lawsuit against the team, said if she met Snyder she would ask Snyder if he would dare to call her a redskin to her face. And, what was Snyder's response, "I think the best way is to just not comment on that type of stuff. I don't know her." If you talk about this controversy you will hear people say, among other things, "The name represents tradition." "No one should be offended, it's just a name." And, you will even hear, "They (presumably Native Americans) should be proud of the name." This is what I mean when I say that telling people what should and should not offend them is an arrogance that grows out of privilege.

Another commonality in the emails was the incivility displayed. As an educator, I believe in the triumph of dialogue, even-maybe especially-when the topics are difficult. One does not have to be a social scientist to recognize that incivility has become normative in many dialogues-and despite the celebrated clamor about the United States entering a post-racial period, discussions about race, race relations, and racism are often characterized by rudeness, name-calling, and personal attacks. Intellectual disagreements are important parts of life, but ad hominem attacks reflect intellectual immaturity. Ask yourself, what is it that elicits such an emotional response? In what have you invested?

Finally, talking about racism does not make one a racist. That seems axiomatic. Apparently, it is not, so I will say it again, talking about racism does not make one a racist. I suppose I should also add, not talking about racism does not mean that one is not a racist.

Dr. David Pilgrim
Curator / Jim Crow Museum
2013


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