04.21.12

Race on TV: Thumbs Down For Acura, The Bachelor; Thumbs Up For Dodge

It’s been a mixed week for race on television, writes Mansfield Frazier.

It was a week dominated by a couple of racially charged dustups in the TV industry, but we also saw a new commercial from automaker Dodge that broke positive interracial ground.

Let’s start with the bad news.

On Wednesday, TMZ posted a copy of a casting agency’s call for an African-American actor to appear in a commercial for Acura. Alas, the actor had to be “not too dark”. The excuse—from someone associated with the producers of the commercial—blamed a technical requirement regarding the lighting. Always with the lighting! Why don’t, say, nationally-televised basketball games ever seem to have that problem?

Acura soon jumped in to stop the damage, releasing a statement saying, “We apologize to anyone offended by the language.” But of course, it’s not just the language, and it’s not just Acura: anyone who views even a limited amount of TV has to notice the majority of blacks in commercials tend to have lighter complexions. This is just one of the rare times such discrimination was documented and made available.

And no, it’s not the “lighting” either; lighter-skinned people of color are sought by advertisers because they’re “easier on white folks’ eyes,” as the old saying goes in black communities. Nothing new here, except incontrovertible proof of what we’ve known all along.

Next up: On Tuesday, the producer of ABC’s hit reality shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette got sued by two African-American college-football players from Nashville. The players—Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson—alleged that in 10 years and 23 seasons the popular shows have been on the air, they have not once featured a person of color as the bachelor or bachelorette. In offering an explanation, producer Mike Fleiss tried to do the Acura folks one better, saying, "I think Ashley is 1/16th Cherokee Indian, but I cannot confirm. But that is my suspicion! We really tried, but sometimes we feel guilty of tokenism.”

‘I think Ashley is 1/16th Cherokee Indian, but I cannot confirm. But that is my suspicion! We really tried, but sometimes we feel guilty of tokenism.’

In other words, Fleiss wouldn’t want to make any persons of color to feel bad by making them “tokens” on his show. It’s a Catch-22 world—we’re just living in it!

The good news this week came in the form of a new commercial from Chrysler’s Dodge division. A young white guy pulls up in front of a house in his new Dodge. An attractive young woman comes out and heads towards the car, but we can’t really see her face. The man makes another stop at an apartment complex and the same thing happens with another young woman. At this point every young red-blooded male viewer is paying rapt attention.

Video screenshot

Then the guy picks up yet another young woman, who gets into the front passenger seat. It’s the dude’s sister, who admonishes the driver when he uses his rearview mirror to flirt with one of her two girlfriends sitting in the back seat. The kicker is that the girlfriend he’s flirting with is a young woman of color—and not a light-skinned woman; this sister is real brown.

Of course there’s nothing ground-breaking about interracial dating in America anymore  (not in most of America, anyway). You might say the Kardashian tribe has made it downright fashionable. But the fact is, it’s been going on for years—in big and diverse urban areas, and also in smaller towns like Akron, Warren and Youngstown, Ohio, where it’s not unusual to see a white woman pushing around a stroller holding a caramel-colored kid—and no, she’s not the sitter.

The reason the Dodge commercial is groundbreaking is that you virtually never see interracial dating portrayed on mainstream commercial TV. And it’ll take some getting used to on both sides. I’ve known black dudes who routinely date white woman, but who get upset whenever they spy a black woman with a white man, which only proves that “race” is indeed our nation’s crazy relative who continues to rattle around in the attic.

Still, what the ad shows without a doubt is that black people don’t have to be tokens to be a romantic interest on TV, and it’s not so hard to light them after all.