Pretty Much Everything You Think about That Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad Is Wrong

The Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner may be bad… but was it bad at selling Pepsi?

Editor’s Note: Remember last week, when our biggest social problem was that Pepsi had released an ad starring Kendall Jenner that everyone was mad about? Yeah, us too. It started a debate among Overthinking It writers.

We started by noting that the ad seemed fractally bad—bad at a distance, bad closer up, bad on every level you cared to examine. And we had a question: Does having Kendall Jenner in this ad make it worse?

I’ll let Overthinking It’s Pete Fenzel take it from here.


Pepsi could easily have made a different commercial that was not as bad as this one, but they made this one, and it grew huge despite the haters. This is the Suicide Squad of commercials. Taking it on these terms, I think putting Kendall Jenner in it makes it much better.

Reframing the Pepsi Commandment

Self-expression, worldly power, sexual success, popularity, physical beauty, political organizing, creativity, and the rise of elite people of color are characteristic of today’s “new generation”—not merely characteristic of the needs of the moment, but superficially characteristic of how “this generation” expresses itself, has fun, and thinks things are cool.

Which generation? The fantasy Pepsi Generation of people currently 18-25 as imagined by somewhat younger people who haven’t decided what kind of soda they like, somewhat older people who want to be younger than they are, and, last and least, people actually that age who don’t know what they think about themselves.

The fantasy Pepsi Generation expects photographers or cellists to protest for social justice and doesn’t see politically disengaged or conservative cellists as legitimate artists. The fantasy Pepsi Generation expects creative people to be sexy and photogenic, since the only way to commercial success for “a creative” is self-promotion of their work and their politics through social media, including lots of pictures of themselves along the way. The fantasy Pepsi Generation see self-image and politics as worthy and integrated subjects of art and creative endeavor.

And, unlike Pepsi Generations Past, where you would expect an elite person of color to be cordoned off into one area of endeavor—music, athletics, politics (Are you like Michael or like Mike?)—the artistic, political and commercial role of the performance of identity puts elite people of color in the center of a matrix of sexy, rich, powerful, iconoclastic, disruptive, justice-seeking success, whether that’s practically what’s true in the world or not.

And then, of course, because Pepsi is the “taste of a new generation,” by some holy creed it wrote on some stone tablets in the 80s, Pepsi is also now about these things whether they make sense or not, or whether it wants to be or not.

The commercial cynically asserts that young elite people protest without knowing or caring what they are protesting in order to appear cool to other young people, and that the subject of the protest is not important. And this sets up a bit of a matrix:

  • Is this ACCURATE or INACCURATE about the desires of its target market?
  • Is this HONEST or DISHONEST in its analysis of the way the world works?
  • Is this MORAL or IMMORAL in its representation of protest and police, regardless of its honesty?

And I don’t think the commercial answers the questions so much as, intended or unintended, provoke and upset the audience with respect to them, intentionally or unintentionally (as if it matters; the author is dead, and no amount of Pepsi can bring it back).

The Beautiful Trolls

I think Kendall Jenner is the best person to represent all this, because without any one part of her success, the rest of it would lose coherence and cease to exist. Her sex appeal is linked to her power and wealth. She is elite in all these respects, yet not elite in any respect on its own. She is all performance, so without art there is nothing. Her primary subject is what she is photographed wearing, doing, or next to.

More on the question of race, gender and Kardashian in a bit.

If Kendall Jenner wants to continue in her station as an elite young person (and she does), she is obligated to be politically engaged, whether she has a handle on what is being protested or not. We learned this from Kendall’s participation in the video for the much-maligned remix of will.i.am’s “Where’s the Love” in 2016.

The one way this trollfest betrays itself is painting the police officer in a positive light. That’s a concession to the oldsters, and of course the thing that pissed everybody off about the commercial and the tiny crystal clog that spins out fractally and makes the whole thing a terrible failure instead of a widely hated success.

She should walk up to the police officer, drink the Pepsi in his face, and then drop the can at his feet. That is the cool/sexy/powerful/ethnic/artistic/rich/young thing to do. She should do what Kardashians do best: confound. Troll.

It still would have been rightly, but uselessly slammed as cynical and morally reprehensible to a lot of people, but it probably would have been able to play longer and stake a stronger claim to its Pepsi Generation. It would have been truer to itself, even if it didn’t aspire at all to the much-vaunted authenticity against which some of the commentariat have judged it.

To me, the problem wasn’t that Kendall Jenner was in it, the problem was that Kendall Jenner wasn’t in it enough. 

Kardashians aren’t supposed to do the comfortable thing that makes the corporate executives happy. They are supposed to do the uncomfortable thing that makes them rich.

The Label on the Can

Let’s look at some actual criticisms of the commercial, exemplified by this Washington Post article by Tracy Jan.

Jenner is white. And wealthy. Daughter of one of the most superficial families in Hollywood who has not, on reality television or social media anyway, put her life on the line to protest any of the issues being highlighted by Black Lives Matter.

There are three issues here, which I’ll take on separately:

  • Kardashian dismissal
  • Kardashian whiteness
  • The commercial’s relation to Black Lives Matter

Keeping Up

I don’t take anyone who just dismisses the Kardashians as superficial seriously. It’s not that they’re wrong, of course the Kardashians are superficial, they deal in fashion and appearances. They just aren’t operating on the Kardashians’ level. Fashion is the art of change. It is not to be taken lightly.

If you hate something the Kardashians are doing that involves race or gender identity, you’re not alone.

“Everyone” hates Kendall Jenner so much. “Everyone” hates Kim and Kanye so much. “Everyone” can’t deal with Cait or anything else Kris has touched since her friend Nicole was murdered by somebody, whoever that was.

First, it’s not everyone even though it feels like it sometimes. Nixon’s old silent majority is now shame-watching Revenge Body. 

Second, you have to be telling a lot of truth folks don’t want to hear and slaughtering a lot of sacred cows to piss off that many people that often for that long and still be the best there is at it.

The KKK-R-KK

And, perhaps controversially, I’d posit that just saying that Kendall Jenner is “white” in the context of this commercial, as if that’s all that’s going on with her race,  ignores the 10 years of Kardashian ethnic and gender identity provocation that has been one of if not the dominant work of popular art and culture in America for the last decade.

Some people credibly assert that Kendall Jenner is white, that her whiteness, by virtue of the privilege it confers, cannot be discarded or changed. The credibility of this assertion rests on their own experience and their right to assert that experience, which is unmistakable.

But they are of course not the only people and not the only perspective, so it’s a credibility that, depending on the context of what is being discussed, admits parallel or contradictory perspectives. And the Kardashians revel and thrive in cutting across these perspectives.

To review the basics, since I’m not sure Overthinking It readers are familiar: Kris Jenner has six children.

The younger children, Kendall and Kylie, are the daughters of Kris and Caitlyn Jenner. Caitlyn Jenner is white, but, you’ll note, thumbs identity political eyes in other ways.

Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob are the children of the departed Rob Kardashian. Rob Kardashian was from an Armenian family that immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey.

Slight detour here…

Because of America’s style of slavery, Black Americans have been classified in an absolute, immutable sense throughout the country’s history. If you are of mixed ancestry, but part of it is Black, you are Black – that has even been enforced by law over the years. Barack Obama is Black. Tiger Woods is Black. Whether you have been in America for 10 generations or were born in Africa, you are Black. The hegemonic discourse White America tends not to acknowledge any subtleties or differences, like the separate communities and cultures of Afro-Caribbean immigrants. They are Black, and they are treated like they are Black.

We held an entire race of people in bondage, so we constructed strong discursive chains as well as physical ones to bind them, and they haven’t gone away.

In other parts of the Western Hemisphere, notably Brazil, ideas of race are more fluid and gradual all the way up and down the various social hierarchies, with different communities and mixtures falling into more intersectional power structures. But that’s not how we do it.

But if you’re “white” in America, that has long been subject to change. There’s a great book by UCLA Professor Karen Brodkin that was the subject of many, many discussions among my friends of various ethnicities in college, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America. It outlines how in the postwar period, ethnic barriers to economic opportunity and social and political participation in the prosperity of the country for Jews were dropped, but strengthened for African Americans. It highlights how the social construction of race means mutability and mobility for some, but not for others. I suggest checking it out.

The reason I bring this up is that it can go both ways. Today, I think we are witnessing the reverse for Middle Easterners of various nationalities currently in the United States and parts of Europe, and the decline of the “Caucasian” definition of “whiteness.”

Increasingly Islam is being treated less as a religion and more of an ethnic cluster, with essentialism about even the moral fiber of children growing increasingly common, aspersions and suspicions cast on families and relatives more than on ideological groups and associations, and with restrictions of free movement and migration, rather than ideological indoctrination, championed as ways to enforce proper behavior by those prejudiced against them.

Of course, Armenians by and large are not Muslims, but that hardly matters to how racial identity in America works. Certain groups who are phenotypically “white” by skin color and facial structure (which includes a range of skin tones, due to, you know, the sun, among other things), and were once commonly viewed as white, are increasingly losing their whiteness because of their culture or religion. As economic opportunity for the working class expanded American whiteness in the mid 20th century, contracting economic opportunity may be narrowing it in the 21st.

Young people are confused by the “White Hispanic” category on the Census. Conservative Republican Iranian-Americans in Michigan are confused they are being targeted by their own party as foreigners. People literally from the Caucasus are no longer Caucasian.

So, if you look at pictures of Robert Kardashian from the 1990s, that’s a guy who, at the time, was white. Now, he would be Middle Eastern. He would probably get randomly stopped at airports by racists as a perceived threat to public safety.

If you look at pictures of his children: His daughters Khloe, Kim, and Kourtney, and his son Robert, they all present with much darker skin than he had. They tend to lean toward the beauty and fashion norms more commonly associated with “people of color.” Three of them married (or at least attempted to marry) African Americans (a much rarer thing than you might think: in 2013, 93% of white people who got married in America married other white people).

This is all further complicated by makeup and plastic surgery, empowering those who can afford it to replace phenotypical characteristics if, among other reasons, they do not wish to perform the associated identities.

Of course, in doing so, the attendant privileges don’t just go away, but that’s all part of why this is so complicated.

So, all this is to say that I would definitely not take it as a given that Kim, Kourtney, Khloe and Rob Kardashian, by modern American conscious and subconscious racist standards are “white,” without a whole bunch of further discussion.

Kendall and Kylie are fairer than their siblings, but Kendall in particular seems to like to present herself as a younger, slimmer version of her sister Kim, due to Kim’s undeniable status as a cultural icon and sex symbol.

This means Kendall Jenner tends to wear a lot of bronzer and have her hair, brows and makeup done such that she looks more Middle Eastern than she is.

This goes back to lived experience as the vested authority of legitimate assertions about identity.

Kendall Jenner is Kim Kardashian’s sister. They they from the same family. I would not deign to deny that half-sisters are sisters if that is how they see each other.

As such, Kendall Jenner may have a moral right, insofar as moral rights around identity construction and performance exist, to present as related to her sister, and to perform aspects of her sister’s complex ethnic identity, as they are not separable from other aspects of her sister’s identity.

It becomes an intersectional questions involving complex parent situations, mixed families, and family legacies as much as one of racial and gender representation.

And if your main takeaway from this is, “Hold on, that’s bullshit! You would upset X by saying that. It’s wrong for Y reasons. You can’t just do that,” it turns out that you can, and congratulations, you are now keeping up with the Kardashians.

The Kardashians are the great counterargument to “authenticity culture.” And just raging at them for not toeing the line doesn’t take their power away, it enlarges it. They are, as Time Magazine put it in 1993, “The New Face of America.”

Also it’s worth noting how much the police officer looks like Matt McGorry from Orange Is the New Black, which reinforces the subtle theme through the commercial and the major overarching Kardashian theme of interracial sex. Or, more specifically, challenging people to be as comfortable with interracial attraction, sex and marriage as everybody who denies being racist claims to be.

Because, white or not, Kendall Jenner is totally banging that cellist later.

The Fractal Screw-Up

Can we look at a world where the Kardashians have done everything they have done and succeeded to the extent they have succeeded and still say with a straight face that the practical rules and social norms of our culture as a country match what would call “appropriate?” Nope!

And yet, is it appropriate for them to co-opt Black American anger at abuse at the hands of police? Nope!

I’ve tried to resist using the word “diversity” with regards to this commercial, as it seems cowardly and vague, and I’m also going to try to resist mincing words regarding Black Lives Matter.

People are mad and have launched massive protests in the United States in recent years because of the racist, extrajudicial murders of Black Americans by the police. And even though all the conversation above about the complex degree to which the Kardashians participate in or perform various levels of whiteness or “of color”-ness, as I also mentioned, being Black in America is different, and they sure aren’t Black.

So, even to the degree that the commercial shows Kendall Jenner stepping away from her whiteness and toward a world populated by elite people of color, it does not show her going through what Black people in America go through and how they are abused and deprived of their rights by racists.

That said, it’s interesting how people assume the protest being depicted was their protest, despite it being a mishmash of images from different current protest movements and barely including anything more specific than peace signs. That to me says the commercial is doing its job.

Of course I don’t blame people from seeing their own reflection when they’re looking at a mirror. This is more to do with the creators of the ad: when you hold up a mirror, you should be mindful of what the people looking at it are going to see and how it will make them feel. Especially if it’s a rose-colored mirror.

But it could have also been a pro-immigration protest, since the photographer with the hijab is so prominently featured, or it could have been an anti-Trump women’s march style protest, because of the wide range of people lined up doing it and the general lightheartedness of it. And as I say, where it engages the question of how to feel about racist extrajudicial murder is where it screws up.

To go back to the three notes on Tracy Jan’s column, I don’t agree with dismissing the Kardashians, I don’t agree that Kendall Jenner being white is simple and obvious, but I do agree that what she’s doing would be hugely inappropriate for a Black Lives Matter protest specifically, if that’s what was happening.

Bury Me in an Aluminum Can

Okay, so with all that said, here’s the message of the commercial: If you, the young, want to appear/be cool, rich, artistic, sexy, and to step away from the numbing safety of your whiteness (without giving up its privileges, natch, and without facing repercussions or abuse), and you want to be seen as a political person in a way that separates it from any particular issue you might invest yourself in—then you take a picture of yourself with a can of Pepsi.

Ludicrous, right?

Of course, in the subsequent week, that’s sort of what’s being reproduced: people who want to appear cool, artistic, and successful are photoshopping cans of Pepsi into scenes of irrelevant, but profound political distress and sharing those around to mooch off that coolness without facing any risk.

The bottom line is I can’t see somebody else, like Chloe Grace Moretz, bringing all this to the table in such an incredibly painful, cynical and confounding commercial. Though I also hesitate to call the commercial a failure on its own terms. It’s more that it wasn’t defensible under scrutiny enough to be allowed to keep running and work its fizz-schilling magic.

Still, maybe the commercial being pulled ruins most of its ability to exert influence, or maybe it won’t. There might be a new Streisand effect in the works, we’ll see. At the very least, when something gets a reaction this big, even when it’s bad, I tend to think it is telling a real truth, or at least, hitting a real nerve. It can be hard to un-ring that kind of bell, even if you claim to intent to un-ring it in your corporate apology.

Where do you stand? Sound off in the comments, and stay tuned for a response from a different Overthinking It writer later on. —Ed.

 

Peter Fenzel is a writer, editor, podcaster, and improv comedian based in Arlington, Massachusetts. He’s a strategic communications professional in the financial industry and a resident company director at ImprovBoston’s Harold Night. Follow Peter on Twitter: @fenzelian.

17 Comments on “Pretty Much Everything You Think about That Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad Is Wrong”

  1. An Inside Joke #

    “Still, maybe the commercial being pulled ruins most of its ability to exert influence, or maybe it won’t.”

    I don’t even own a TV – I stream my shows online with Hulu’s ad-free option and other apps – and almost never see a TV commercial, but I heard about the controversial Pepsi ad the day it got pulled and immediately Googled the video to watch it for myself.

    Like you said, Pepsi-as-protest has become a meme, and as much as the controversy might be a drawback in the money lost for air time, Pepsi seems to be getting massive free publicity, and I have yet to see any calls to boycott the brand or otherwise hit their pockets hard.

    I’m not so cynical as to suggest Pepsi is intentionally courting controversy for the exposure, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if pulling the ad drew more attention to the brand than if the ad campaign had played without backlash.

    Reply

    • Greg #

      was that what the article was about? Cause they could’ve just said what you said…

      Reply

  2. bt #

    Lots of interesting points in here, particularly about the fluid nature of race in America. I also was quite interested in what you said about Pepsi’s target audience being young people walking away from their whiteness and co-opting the Black Lives Matter ‘fashion’ without having to face the repercussions.

    To be authentic, the commercial should’ve ended with that cop slapping the can of Pepsi out of Jenner’s hand and laying a savage beat down on her with his baton, the rest of the cops drawing their weapons and pointing them randomly into the crowd while a firehose is used to disperse the crowd.

    Maybe next time.

    Reply

    • jmasoncooper #

      What is “Black Lives Matter ‘fashion'”? Not trolling. I don’t know what you mean. Do you mean protest? Marching? Confronting the police? Assembling in public? Wearing FUBU? or Sean Jean? or South Pole? or Ecko? or ENYCE?

      And what do you mean by repercussions? Do you mean getting shot? Getting pulled over? Getting ticketed or told to disperse? Getting hosed with water canons? Getting tear gased?

      I would just like a little specificity. Thanks.

      Reply

  3. Greg #

    Wow…you guys really, really did overthink this. Are you getting paid by the word?

    Reply

  4. jmasoncooper #

    @Fenzel, thanks for the great post.

    I am really interested in learning and I think you can teach me, so please do not dismiss this as trolling.

    @Fenzel, I believe that you will be able to expand my perspective because you did it a while back when I posed a question about racist holloween costumes on the forums (https://www.overthinkingit.com/topic/yale-halloween-debate/). Thank you for that. Thank you for inspiring my trust.

    Now since last October I have really immersed myself in discussions of free speech. But this post makes me worry that the people I have been listening to are arguing against a straw man. Most of the free-speechers that I have heard argue that the left is currently full of people who are so committed to identity politics and equality of outcome that they are willing to legislate away people’s freedom to express themselves how they see fit. Most of the arguments against political correctness I have heard are that people get offended for lots of reasons and no group deserves a special privilege to silence others because they are offended even if they have been historically marginalized. There also exist arguments against a feminist/trangender/social constructivist worldview that we create our own identity, therefore our identity can be whatever we want it to be. The people I listen to prefer stricter categorizations than “I am what I feel like I am today.”

    But the way you talk about identity and specifically ‘performance of identity’ here: “the artistic, political and commercial role of the performance of identity puts elite people of color in the center of a matrix of sexy, rich, powerful, iconoclastic, disruptive, justice-seeking success, whether that’s practically what’s true in the world or not.” implies that identity is not a thing that you invent or choose, but a thing that is imposed upon you. I don’t choose to identify as a male, society tells me I am a male. I don’t identify as white, I am told by society I am white. I don’t identify as straight, I am told by society that my particular sexual desires are called ‘straight.’

    If my rephrasing of your statement is accurate then the free-speechers are arguing against a straw man, because those on the left are not arguing for the ability to identify as what they want, but pointing out a mechanism in society that defines people and to a certain degree disempowers them/makes them unfree.

    Please correct me if I am wrong, and add any nuance that I may be missing.

    Reply

    • An Inside Joke #

      I know your question was directed toward Fenzel, but I’m going to hop in on this discussion if you don’t mind.

      I think it’s important to clearly define terms when it comes to “free speech.” The 1st Amendment has always guaranteed the right to express yourself without arrest or other official government reprisal (although that right hasn’t always been protected: see HUAC blacklists for one example) but has never guaranteed freedom from all repercussions for saying whatever you want.

      It’s simply impossible, given human nature, to even try to pretend a person can say anything and everything without consequence. For a small-scale example, you might decide not to befriend someone who expresses an opinion you find disasteful, or you maychoose not to patronize a restaurant where the waitstaff is overtly rude to you, etc.

      Identity politics is just that on a wider scale. Everyone always has the right to say whatever they want (barring threats, libel, and other specific examples) and everyone else has the right to respond to what you say within the confines of the law. If a representative from a company says something that could be interpreted as bigoted, people have (and always have had, as this is nothing new) the right to organize a boycott or to publicly criticize that company. As far as I know, I’ve never heard of anyone actually proposing legislation to outlaw speech deemed offensive.

      Reply

  5. jmasoncooper #

    Thanks @An_Inside_Joke! This is a community and a community discussion so all comments are always welcome.

    I think you are right. The first amendment protects people from government reprisal. That is true. People are welcome to combat speech with speech.

    Where it gets murky is with ‘hate speech’ laws, and the new provisions and interpretations of the human rights tribunals in Ontario, Canada.

    I am not an expert about either of these subjects, and I don’t live in Canada. But I have listened to Jordan Peterson, and my post above is an attempt to put some of the things he says in dialogue with the position that Pete Fenzel has, which I believe, is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

    I personally am an advocate for critical thinking, which means, to me, learning and understanding each side so well that you could speak for them if they were not there to speak for themselves. That is why I asked for clarification about my idea above. I have heard a lot of the Peterson side, but I have heard very little that makes any sense from the PC side. If the PC folks are motivated by a lack of respect then I am indifferent to their position. In a world of free speech, people will disagree and the marketplace of ideas will be full of people who don’t-like/are-offended-by what other people believe, and that is just tough noogies (although they are welcome to non-violent protest). But if the PC people believe what I said above about the imposition of unchosen identities then that is a threat to freedom, and I ought to take them more seriously.

    All of this is to say, I love the overthinking it community and I know that I can learn a lot from all of you, so please teach me. I am not familiar with the depth of intersectional theory that it seems like you (especially Fenzel) are. So please help me understand your side.

    Reply

    • Amanda OTI Staff #

      This isn’t exactly a reply to your question, but something related to this conversation that you may be interested in considering. Racial categories from one country don’t necessarily line up perfectly with those of another. And there are many cases of people who are white (in my particular case) in their home countries but who are considered anything but in the US because Americans decided that some countries can’t be white, regardless of how the actual population of that country looks like. Meaning, whiteness in America is very tied to culture, Anglo culture more specifically. So a lot of people who have European ancestry but come from countries that seem exotic to white Americans get told they are “people of color” even though they’re the dominant group in the social/racial hierarchy of their home country. This happens a lot to Cubans, Argentinians, Brazilians, etc, and also to a lot of Middle Eastern people who, phenotypically are no different from any other “white person.”
      I can’t find the exact essay I’m about to mention, but here’s something on that same subject, about Lupita Nyong’o and how she realized she wasn’t “American Black” when she moved here, because she grew up in a majority Black country, so even though she absolutely considered herself Black all her life, that didn’t automatically put her in the minority category in the society she grew up in. http://www.theroot.com/lupita-nyong-o-and-what-it-means-to-be-black-1790874844
      I remember having an Aha! moment when I read that because it’s sounds very similar to how I’ve felt as a Latin American immigrant. I’m considered non-white by many Americans, but I absolutely grew up with white privilege. So knowing that I’m a minority now feels weird because I didn’t grow up under the weight of racism, oppression, etc. But when I have to check my race on a form, I’ve been told I need to check Latina/Hispanic, but that feels wrong as it relates to Affirmative Action or something of the sort, because I don’t need to have a lifetime of racism against me addressed or rectified. But I was told that I was wrong to check white on a form once, and now that I live here I do encounter racism (although nothing near the degree that people who are darker than me experience). So it’s kinda like I became a minority in my late 20s, which is a very odd experience. And that relates to your point about the “mechanism in society that defines people and to a certain degree disempowers them/makes them unfree” It’s not that I want to hold on to whiteness itself. It’s just that I now have my identity, the one I’ve had my entire life, questioned constantly, and complete strangers tell me that I am not what I’ve always known myself to be. I don’t care about being white itself (I try to be mindful about being anti-racism as often as possible), but my family did come from Spain and Italy and that is a big part of my identity, upbringing, family life, etc. And Americans will often tell me or imply that I can’t possibly be those things because I’m Latin American, and their idea of Latin America is that it’s a place of “color” where people couldn’t possibly have European heritage (even though the history of immigration in Latin America and the racial makeup of our population if just as diverse as that of the US.)

      Reply

    • Amanda OTI Staff #

      Oh, I’ve found the article!
      The quote I remembered is actually by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

      “In Nigeria I didn’t think of myself as black. I didn’t need to. And I still don’t when I’m in Nigeria. Race doesn’t occur to me. Many other things occur to me. But in the United States, yes…. Also, race is something that one has to learn. I had to learn what it meant to be black…. If you’re coming from Nigeria, you have no idea what’s going on. When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be “black” was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be “black.””

      In my particular case, my life experiences are maybe more similar to those of white Americans, but my culture, family life, experiences of religion, etc are closer to those of Latinos. That means I have more in common with white people when it comes to how I navigate society, work, etc. But I’m still seen as “other” by them. And I’m also seen as “other” by American-born Latinos because we’ve had wildly different experiences growing up. But instead of just being me, a person who has a little in common with each group but isn’t either one fully, a lot of people here seem to alternatively categorize me into one or the other, and refuse to accept that I can be neither and just share parts of the experience of both groups.

      (Here’s the article that quote is from, if you’re interested: https://stacialbrown.com/2014/03/03/when-a-comparatively-carefree-blackgirl-wins-an-oscar/)

      Reply

    • An Inside Joke #

      I don’t know much about the legal situation in Canada so I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on that. Regarding laws against hate speech, I don’t agree with criminalizing the expression of any opinion, but the most persuasive argument I’ve heard in favor of that is that expressing bigoted opinions can lead to criminal acts of violence against the minorities. There is some anecdotal evidence tying increases in hate crime to more widespread hate speech, but I’m not sure if there’s enough evidence to actually link those things causally. However, if you believe hate speech ==> hate crime, then the logic goes that outlawing hate speech is protecting people’s right to life in the same way outlawing yelling “fire” in a crowded theater does.

      In actual application, your mileage may vary.

      Reply

      • Amanda OTI Staff #

        I’m from a country where hate speech is illegal and you’re right that the rationale is that hate speech is seen as an incitement to violence. Another thing that happens when hate speech is widespread is that minorities feel justifiably unsafe, so allowing for absolute free speech means the people at the top of the social hierarchy get total freedom to say anything they want while anyone who belongs to a targeted group becomes afraid to leave the house.

        As for the “marketplace of ideas,” I get that this isn’t a simple and straightforward comparison, but it baffles me when people who don’t believe in the free market’s ability to just correctly adjust itself do believe that that will somehow work with ideas/discourse/whatever.

        Reply

  6. jmasoncooper #

    Thanks to @Amanda and @An Inside Joke for continuing the conversation. I think all of your comments are super important and relevant. Thank you for sharing.

    @Amanda, your comments about being pigeon-holed into a group categorization without your own say so, and the quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (that I am pretty sure I heard before in a multi-cultural education class) are great. If the purpose of intersectional theory is to draw attention to the unique circumstances of individual lives, and how race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc intersect to complicate our lives, then I feel like that is a totally valid pursuit and a valid field of inquiry.

    But on the other hand, if intersectional theory is just a new guise for marxist-style class warfare, then I cannot get behind that. I recently read a piece (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/shelley-garland/could-it-be-time-to-deny-white-men-the-franchise_a_22036640/) that said “These ideologies with their focus on individuals and individual responsibility, rather than group affiliation, allow white men to ignore the debt that they owe society, and from acknowledging that most of their assets, wealth, and privilege are the result of theft and violence.” That seems super backwards to me. I cannot deny my individual uniqueness in order to more closely align myself with some larger not-well defined group identity.

    Then this gets back to my main question above, which is who decides what these group identities are? Is being White or Black or Hispanic or Asian or a woman or a man or poor or rich just a stereotype? Is it some kind of collective unconscious group think? Or is it an emergent social construction that we can change? I would say that being Black now is not what being Black was in the 1930s. But I would also say that being Black in the South in the 1930s was not being Black in the West in the 1930s. I guess what all of this is to say is that there are too many categories, life is too complicated to try to define it in strict terms of group identity and group identity politics. I think that group identities can work as great lenses to analyze individual experience and try to compare and contrast with others, but I do not think of myself as white first, or a man first, or even a Mormon first. I think of me as me.

    Maybe that is just my privilege talking, but I will need an education (hopefully from this wonderful community that I am grateful to be a part of on overthinking it) to think in a different way.

    And to @An Inside Joke, I love your comment. Thanks for being honest enough to say “I don’t know” about Canada. Because I (me = jmasoncooper) don’t know hardly anything. I just like to think and learn. So regarding hate speech, my question is where do you draw the line? To say we should kill all people from another race is wrong. To say we should hurt all people from another race is wrong. But is to say “we should ignore all people of another race” wrong? Is it wrong to say “I don’t like someone” for any reason, or are some reasons for not liking people wrong? Is the utilitarian doctrine of collective outcome (the most happiness for the most people) valid when it comes to people not liking each other? In other words, it’s not wrong for one person to not like someone, but it is wrong for everyone to not like someone? I don’t know any of the answers to any of these questions, and I just want to know what other people think.

    I oppose racism and institutional racism. I oppose sexism and institutional sexism. I oppose hating people because of their membership in any group. But I don’t know how committed I am to using legal force to ensure that all people are treated with respect and love, because life is just too complicated, in my opinion, to figure out whether or not people have been disrespected from a state-like perspective.

    Reply

    • An Inside Joke #

      I would say that the goal of identity politics is to observe and identify racial characterizations that society has already imposed on people. So, to take your example, while you may not identify primarily as a white Mormon man, society identifies you that way, often subconsciously and automatically. Identity politics tries to take that subconscious automatic identification and make it conscious so that we can observe what it means to be “white,” “Mormon,” and “man” and also observe how those identities are different from other racial, religious, and gender identities. If a person is not used to consciously thinking about those things, it can seem like it’s the progressive identity politics crowd making these distinctions, while a person who believes in identity politics (like myself) would argue that those distinctions have always existed, we’re just the ones pointing it out. Also, we’re all human, so sometimes we get the labels we’re observing wrong.

      And, yeah, I’m not in favor of hate speech laws exactly for the reasons you point out – who gets to make the call about what constitutes hate speech? I’d even go further to say that because of privilege, nobody is 100% tolerant no matter how much we’d all like to say we are, and honest and open conversation about our bigotries is the first step to moving past them. So if a straight person says “the thought of two men kissing just grosses me out” or if a white person says “I feel nervous when a black guy walks past me on the street” (or whatever), that acknowledgement of prejudice is important – as alcoholics say, the first step is admitting you have a problem. I am much more in favor of putting intolerant speech in context and learning from it than simply trying to shut down all bigoted speech. However, putting it in context does involve explaining why the sentiment expressed is a problem, and that step sometimes gets labelled “censorship” by people who don’t agree or understand what identity politics is all about.

      Reply

      • jmasoncooper #

        @An Inside Joke, thanks again for such an insightful, respectful, and informative comment.

        Your explanation of what identity politics is and why it appeals to you, in your first paragraph, is really great. I feel the same way. I think the best thing I got out of college was learning how to be skeptical (sometimes called critical thinking). The drive to get outside one’s assumptions and to evaluate the foundations of one’s beliefs is powerful. I feel like my life has been greatly enriched by learning how to do this.

        That being said, I think there is a knock-down-drag-out-fight/shouting-match that could ensue if we dig a whole lot deeper into this. Where I feel like the discussion breaks down is in the definitions of words like “racist,” “bigot,” “homophobic,” “misogynist,” “transphobic,” etc. I do not expect anyone to respond to this or to agree with me. What I think people argue about the most is how these words are applied. Some people think not wanting to see gay men kissing in public is homophobic, and other people think that not wanting to see gay men kiss in public is a personal preference. Some people would argue that being afraid while walking alone down the street at night past a large group of black men is racist, and other people would say that that is being pro-active about personal safety. I am not saying that either one of those ideas is correct, or that I espouse either one of them. I am saying that until people can agree about what constitutes these ideas, and can calmly talk about where the lines are for what it means to be racist and what is not, then we will continue to shout and scream and judge and not improve.

        I just recently had a conversation with @Scholar Sarah over on another post about “The Good Place.” She taught me about virtue ethics. I feel like virtue ethics has an axiom that applies to this discussion. That axiom is “the golden mean.” The golden mean is the place of perfect virtue between two extremes. To say that you should be afraid of all black people is an extreme view. To say that you should be afraid of no black people is also an extreme view. The golden mean is to have situational awareness and not be reckless while also not judging people by how they look or making assumptions without talking or getting to know people. I feel like it is wrong to have some kind of strict definition that says that people who are vigilant are racist and people who are reckless are compassionate. In the same way it is wrong to say that if you have friends of different races you are a traitor to your own people, or that white people didn’t actually hurt many non-white peoples throughout American history. All of this is wrong. Recklessness is not a virtue, neither is dogmatic denial of verifiable facts.

        I feel like in a world of free speech we ought to be able to recognize all of the times that America has failed non-white people, while still being patriotic and loving all the good it has done in the world. People who think America can do no wrong should be dissuaded of that notion, but people who think that America is the most oppressive and evil country in the world should also be dissuaded.

        Lets put on our real world glasses and try to understand each other, rather than shouting or name-calling or blaming. Discussion is the only answer that I can see, and that must be founded on critical thinking and the taking of multiple perspectives and an eschewing of dogmatism and ideology.

        Reply

        • An Inside Joke #

          Thank you for the conversation as well, and I hope my comments didn’t come across as if I was trying to imply you were bigoted or intolerant, as that wasn’t my intention. I was just trying to lay out some examples, but understand this is a heated issue and hope that no insult was taken.

          Reply

          • jmasoncooper #

            I actually feel exactly the opposite. I was not concerned about you specifically at all. You were always measured and reasonable without jumping to conclusions in your respononses. I just love this community and don’t want it to be a toxic environment for those with different views. I have some pretty radical views myself, and I want overthinking it comments to be a place to learn and question rather than to be full of orthodox back- patting and outrage. I have learned so much on this site, I want it to stay that way.

            So thank you, @An Inside Joke for not being judgmental, staying open to conversation, and keeping overthinking it a wonderful place to learn and interact!

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