What’s more all-American than Cheerios? How about a wrenching national conversation on race? In recent days, a new commercial for the iconic cereal has become a phenomenon — not because it was an especially good ad, but because it featured a black dad, a white mom and their biracial daughter. On the ad’s YouTube page, anonymous haters spewed so much bile against the image of mixed-race domesticity that the comments section had to be disabled.
The racist comments were far outnumbered by expressions of support. The ad, which has been viewed over 1.8 million times, garnered 24,000 thumbs-ups to just over 1,500 thumbs-downs. But the intensity and vitriol of the race baiters got the media’s attention. The subtext of the coverage has been not just outrage but shock: America is supposed to be past this kind of racism — what just happened?
There are three lessons to draw from this fevered moment. The first is that this kind of racism is precisely what happens when a society begins moving past this kind of racism. Had it not been for the election to the presidency of a biracial man who chooses to identify as black, the Cheerios ad would likely not have been as fiercely attacked or defended. But we do have such a man in the White House. We do live in a time when whiteness and white maleness in particular no longer confer automatic primacy. To angry whites who resent the multicolored future for leaving them behind, lashing out at a mixed-race kid who likes Cheerios might seem like an act of defiant political incorrectness — but it’s the epitome of powerlessness.
The second lesson is that pseudo-controversies often matter not for the “news” or “facts” they purport to convey but for their value as community parables and tales of moral instruction. Why did the media turn this tempest in a cereal bowl into a national phenomenon? Not because every household was already discussing the ad — most of us learned about it only through well-publicized reactions to it — but because this is the kind of thing that (mainly white) news editors and television producers believe that we, as Americans, should collectively disapprove of. And contrived as it all is, this too represents progress.
The deepest lesson is that race is getting too complex for racists and more complex than even the well-meaning sometimes realize. Bi-racial even seems too simple. Interracial marriages are at an all-time high, and over 9 million people in the 2010 Census identified as multiracial, a 32% jump. There are words these Americans use for themselves — blasian, hapa, mestizo — yet our public language is clumsy and deficient. My daughter is Chinese-Scotch-Irish-Lithuanian-Jewish. She calls herself Asian, with a touch of irony.
Depending on your vantage point, this age of racial flux is either exhilarating or terrifying. The boxes and labels we’ve used to contain race are collapsing. Our inherited and often unspoken notions about the U.S.’s fundamental whiteness, about the alienness of brown and yellow skin, about the indelible stigma of blackness — all are falling away, their adherents dying off. To be sure, we are not beyond race in the U.S. A glance at how power flows in any institution still reminds us that race matters, and darkness disadvantages. But kids like my daughter or the one in the Cheerios ad or the millions celebrating the ad are proof that a more fluid and customizable way of talking about race and cultural identity is going to emerge. Is my daughter Asian or white? Yes. Chinese or Asian? Yes. Lithuanian or Scotch-Irish? Yes. Chinese or Jewish? Yes. American? Yes. Definitely.