Shea Moisture: They’re Not Tone Deaf, They’re Assholes, Pt 2

Shea Moisture put out an ad this week called Hair Hate and then sat back and enjoyed their own Pepsi moment. ¬†Here’s the ad below:

For a company that is built by, for and literally¬†on black women, expanding their¬†customer base by equating the hair challenges of naturals with the bad hair days of gingers and blondes wasn’t an overreach, it was a betrayal. ¬† Shortly after Shea Moisture’s dragging began, so did the comparisons¬†to the Pepsi ad. ¬†Both seemed tone deaf, trivializing important aspect of black culture to sell product. ¬†But I said it about Pepsi and now I’ll say it about Shea Moisture–they’re not tone deaf, they’re assholes; they’re not silly, they’re sell outs.

Shea Moisture’s built its brand on black women and their¬†hard earned cash. ¬†Even the label tells the homey story of the brand’s founder’s grandmother Sofi Tucker selling product in Sierra Leon. ¬†Last year the brand shouted its allegiance¬†to ethnic hair by proudly proclaiming it was going to desegregate the beauty isle–the implication being that Shea Moisture’s move to shelf space in the non-ethinc hair care section (called the regular hair section by most people) was about making hair care inclusive of black beauty, not leaving it behind. This ad clearly positions Shea Moisture as here for black women.¬†Turns outs they were just getting ready to sell out in the rush to gentrify haircare¬†and expand their own customer base and bottom line.

This is not a tone deaf company. ¬†This is a company that has carefully–and with great success–made it big by catering to black women. ¬†Looking back,¬†it seems the brand, like an NBA player, wasn’t trying to rock with the sisters once it started making it big time (please don’t¬†write me letters, my woke NBA brothers). ¬†The move to the regular hair isle is now followed up with an ad that is shifting the brand to one that serves “regular hair” ¬†The new ad is the shampoo equivalent of all hair matters, compete with¬†Becky with the good hair. (Did they not listen to Lemonade?!)

Hair is an important marker of identity, especially for women, and especially for black women. ¬†The natural hair movement has grown along with the movement for black lives. ¬†Like the rallying cry,¬†‘Black is Beautiful’ in the 70’s, the natural hair movement cannot be separated from the politics and social change of our time.

Shea Moisture seeks to equate the hate of different kinds of hair without acknowledging that some hair hate comes with real consequences. ¬†The hate towards natural hair in schools, business, and social situations is about more than hair, it is reinforcing white supremacy. ¬†To act like hair hate is about hair and not hate¬†means that Shea Moisture just¬†doesn’t understand us anymore. ¬†Maybe they never really loved us, they just loved our hair style. ¬†Something tells me they’re about to find out if Becky with the good hair can¬†love them like we did.

The Truth Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

It’s true that the Oxford dictionary added the word post fact his year, and of course, our current administration acts like that is a goal rather than a problem, but that doesn’t mean that facts and evidence cease to exist. ¬†Post-truthers are more than liars–they are propagandists that carefully craft narratives, leaving out facts in evidence for their own gain. ¬†This is dangerous behavior whether you are the president or a professor. ¬†Maybe even more so¬†for a professor–aren’t we supposed to be professing the truth as best we know it?

So it goes with two colleagues of mine who are again peddling a concerning tale of antisemitism at Wheelock College, an¬†institution I love–and work at. ¬†These celebrated Professors craft a narrative so egregious¬†it’s almost unbelievable–a single email asking for a seat at the table unleashed a storm of antisemitism that destroyed their careers and reputations. ¬†As a lover of justice, this should alarm you, right?

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But¬†like Donald Trump and his post fact inauguration, there is some information that throws this narrative into question. ¬† Their story claims their email about Jewish life is what triggered retaliation from the administration, not the complaints from black students about racism in the classroom. ¬†Oh, shit, there isn’t even the mention of the accusations of anti-black racism in my colleague’s post–strange. The pair maintains that student complaints were manufactured by an antisemitic (black) president and that black students, faculty, and administrators somehow colluded to use fake complaints¬†in an antisemitic plot to ouster just these two Jewish professors (and not other Jewish faculty).

This tale ignores a funny part of this story–I have met real students who have complained repeatedly about the professors’ approach to teaching race and gender studies–and not just one or two. More than a handful. ¬†Over years. ¬†Students have posted a screen shot where one professor wrote the “word he does not utter”.

So you don’t say it but you write it. ¬†You ask students to explore if it’s okay to say the word–so it is part of writing assignments, but like Voldemort, it’s cool as long as you don’t say it out loud. ¬†Okay, cool, so how did you create a classroom environment where this activity allowed students to engage and learn, where students felt heard and could themselves express oppositional views? This activity is not unheard of, but in the era of black lives matter, concurrent with days where these same students laid on the hard grass in the snow in a die in to bring attention to “racial divides many refuse to acknowledge exist”, it’s time to update your pedagogy. We’re way beyond the N word. Students need real tools for the very-real-and-not-at-all-theoretical revolution.

I want to be clear–this is not a defense of snowflakes. ¬†I believe strongly in academic freedom and the importance of tenure to protect this freedom. ¬†I push students to think and grapple with difficult ideas and these same colleagues of mine also have. ¬†These are not easy times for good liberal professors, and so I do not lightly enter this conversation. Exploring complex, controversial and unpopular ideas is a key part of a good education. This isn’t about over-sensitivity to hearing the N-word, or a single incident. ¬†It is that these students had a right to have a functioning relationship with the professors they pay thousands of dollars to teach them. ¬†It is that when there are complaints they can and should be handled with conversation that helps learning happen, not lawsuits that shut down discussion and make everybody–even me, right now–afraid to speak publicly. It is that for hard ideas to take hold they need to be¬†fertilized by faculty inside classrooms crafted from respect, current pedagogy, and historical context. ¬†Structural analysis is key, and as structures and the communities they structure change, we need to update what we say and how we say it.

While student complaints will need to be adjudicated as part of the pairs’ upcoming multimillion dollar lawsuit, I can tell you I have heard multiple complaints from multiple students, multiple semesters in public forums. ¬†I have to ask, are they all lying? ¬†I witnessed students bring forth these complaints in many town halls and open discussions with clear voices and weeping eyes. ¬†Were they all faking it? ¬†Students were not trying to burn down the school. ¬†They were asking for professors to update and adapt their pedagogy in a rapidly changing world. ¬†They were asking to be prepared to work in the social justice field with the most current understanding of critical race and gender theory. These last few years have seen a seismic shift in race and gender studies, something that shouldn’t be ignored¬†by the top race and gender scholars. ¬†Dickering about nigga vs nigger when police brutality was the top story in the news is not just tone-deaf, it’s irresponsible for good liberal professors.

Students spoke out in class, a class where they were allegedly reminded–theoretically of course–that tenure would protect a professor who graded all the students of color unfairly. Undeterred, students elevated their complaints through available formal channels. As scholars of race, both professors are well aware of the importance of conversation and reconciliation, but instead of participating in dialog directly with students protesting their actions they used their position to avoid engaging, and then their power as successful academics to sue the school and amplify their narrative in blog posts like this latest one and in public lectures at other institutions, flaming the school and harming the school’s good reputation. All this without a legal judgment to support their narrative and free from the voices of the students involved.

Over the past year and a half, I have witnessed¬†students of color and allies try bravely to hold these individuals to account, asking for dialogue, and when that failed, holding town halls that the two professors didn’t attend, except for one after the lawsuit was filed where they took notes on students statements(for the lawsuit?). Students protested. They wrote demands. ¬†For some, their studies suffered as they grappled to succeed in an institution whose commitment to racial justice was shaken. ¬†Many staff and faculty of color faced the same emotional pain as students, and a number left at the end of last academic year. The incident had the potential to be the worst kind of oppression Olympics, lining up complaints of antisemitism against complaints of racism–dividing the very groups who were working together to create a culturally adept community. All of us worked hard to try to keep the incident and its fallout from pulling our beloved community apart.

For those of us that remained, we have worked hard to be a part of a healing institution. The two professors so wrongly aggrieved have¬†had a full year off¬†of work with full pay– a move made by a new President to help settle the waters while the lawsuit was filed. And it’s working. ¬†The new administration and faculty and student groups have supported and created events, activities, committees and community days to help us grow as an institution. ¬†This is the way forward. ¬†It feels good to go to work again, and I trust the people I work with to prepare our future social justice warriors. ¬†Students, faculty,¬†staff and the new administration know it’s not easy because we’re doing the hard work to walk our talk. ¬†We’re in a better place. ¬†The courts will have the final say, deciding once and for all who was right and who was wronged. In the meantime, I’m more afraid of injustice than shade–I’m going to focus on strengthening students and an institution trying to make the world better. ¬†We’re not post fact–but you can act like it if you want to.

 

 

 

 

Pepsi’s Not Tone Deaf, They’re Assholes

Last week in the can opening heard round the world, Kendell Jenner solved racism in Pepsi’s crap ad posted below–please watch at your own discretion and preferably not while you are eating.

The ad takes the markers of recent civil resistance and boils it down to some musical hipster millennials that conveniently come in a one-of-each variety pack.  As you can imagine, the internet, led by the beacon of black twitter, lost its mind and Pepsi pulled the ad off the air within 24 hours.  A flurry of news coverage and talk show segments roundly condemned the ad as tone deaf, as brilliantly portrayed in this skit on SNL (below).  The week ends with a bunch of high fives as we congratulate ourselves on a moment of shared outrage across racial lines.  We can all agree here–tone deaf.

But you know your girl here has a different opinion.  I disagree that Pepsi was tone deaf. And SNL’s skewering of the ad? It seems to portray the ad’s producers as hapless creatives who didn’t listen to their black friends–of course, they couldn’t be expected to see the problem on their own, and of course, there was no ill intention.  That’s not a skewering, that’s an excuse.

Pepsi has a long history off co-opting outsider youth culture and dragging it into the mainstream, redefining it for the masses in the process.  More than mere celebrity endorsements, Pepsi’s slogan of Pepsi Generation, and later Generation Next specifically seeks to align itself with and define youth culture. Ads like those starring Brittany Spears or Michael Jackson intentionally seeks to mirror a more mainstream, palatable and- profitable–version of whatever that year’s young people like.

Whether it is the hippies of the 70’s, the magic of Michael Jackson in the 80’s or even the girl power of the Spice Girls in the 2000’s Pepsi’s brand is all about creating a reductionist version of youth culture to sell to sugar water to the masses. Decade after decade, Pepsi has traded on what young people think is cool, targeting products at various youth subcultures–like Mountain Dew for motor-bikers.

What’s more, Pepsi also has a long history of targeting black consumers.  In the 1940’s Pepsi even had a negro marketing department, according to this fascinating article about how soda is racist af.   So no, Pepsi is not tone deaf, they are crafty, capitalizing on the very cultures they misrepresent and have been for decades.

And that brings us back to this latest disaster of social-justice-y porn.  In the Kendall Jenner ad, Pepsi hits every corner of a very diverse youth demographic–every race, a good mash up of random instruments and dance steps, a Muslim woman–enamored of course with Kendell’s stunning display of white feminism–hipsters with and without beards, gentrifiers with and without signs, and activism decidedly without any ideology. Pepsi sucked the life, passion and meaning out of the very real revolution happening in this moment of time and turned it into a moving stock photography image.  But taking the depth, meaning, and messiness out of life to sell product isn’t going to stop with this one ad getting taken down.  Look around you.  Everywhere advertisers are cashing in on our deepest feelings and most fervent hopes.  As altruism, connection, activism, and awareness have become trending ways of being, advertisers are increasingly using these most meaningful qualities to sell shit.

This State Farm ad is touching and heartwarming, and like the Pepsi ad features a diverse cast of characters starring a white savior with the power to transform the life of the poor, downtrodden, and brown.  While this ad is moving and inspiring as opposed to Pepsi’s abomination, both ads seek to use your positive feelings towards creating a better world to sell you product.  Both ads ignore any structural analysis of what social movements are seeking to disrupt.  Both ads put the power of individual white people as the simple answer that can eradicate widespread social injustice. Pepsi’s ad went too far and was condemned, but the State Farm ad was embraced

Ads selling us back the very essence of who we are are everywhere. When ads with social themes are done poorly, it’s good to see that consumer pushback can force advertiser accountability.  When they are done carefully, they make us smile, feel nice–and buy more.  In order to have broad appeal, the complex and controversial edges of life are sanded off in favor of a lighter, happier look at our world–one where products can often solve the worst problems in 30-60 seconds. Staying woke means making sure that you don’t allow capitalism to sell you back your fight against capitalism and other unfair systems.  Now that Pepsi has your twitter fingers warmed up, stay on the look out for capitalists in activists’ clothing.