Coca Cola and the Other: Understanding the Backlash

I’m a few days late in jumping into the firestorm that has been the reaction to Coca Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” commercial, but I’d like to add to the discussion.

For those who have not seen it, the commercial features American girls of different ethnic backgrounds singing “American the Beautiful” in nine different languages and can be viewed below.

The song was sang in English, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, Sengalese-French, Mandarin, Tagalog, Hindi, and even Keres, a Native American language that, though sparsely spoken in mainstream society, you could argue is more authentically “American” than the hyper imposed english language.

I have trouble rationally comprehending the backlash Coca Cola received. I’ll spare you much of the hate spewed against the ad and just say that it can be viewed herehere, and hereFormer Tea Party Representative Allen West claimed that “If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing “American the Beautiful” in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come — doggone we are on the road to perdition.” Being the modest man I am, I admittedly didn’t know what perdition meant; Siri promptly informed me that it meant “the abode of Satan and the forces of evil.” Oh. Well. Uh?

Meanwhile, Fox News journalist Todd Snares politicized the advertisement tweeting “So was Coca-Cola saying America is beautiful because new immigrants don’t learn to speak English?” and “Coca Cola is the official soft drink of illegals crossing the border. #americaisbeautiful.” Obviously Snares didn’t watch any the Behind the Scenes videos which clearly show that not only do all of the girls speak English, but they are all proud American citizens.

It really comes as no surprise that so much of the backlash has come from English-as-the-national-language lobby groups. But frankly, America has no recognized national language despite what some desire. And this commercial has no intention of making political statement, but a cultural one.

Coca Cola acknowledges the beauty in the “culture of America” in that it is composed of many different cultures! Some fear multiculturalism, but America has always been multicultural due to the influx of immigrants from around the world. It’s not a new phenomenon. But even apart from immigration, America has a diverse set of cultures. For instance, Seattle has a different culture than the Navajo reservation, has a different culture than Miami, has a different culture than the Pensylvania-Dutch, has a different culture than West Virginia, has a different culture than New York City. Heck! There is even different cultures between my house in suburban Toledo and poverty-stricken homes in inner-city Toledo 10 minutes away!

Apart from the political though, perhaps some people just feel threatened by this ad. When we recognize that being American doesn’t mean conforming to some monolithic personhood, it challenges our cultural assumptions. By recognizing that my skin color, my religion, my language, or even my ethnic identity does not make me American, my own American identity is challenged. When Americans can be of different ethnic backgrounds and heritages, it destroys our image of the mysterious “other” that we can blame the world’s problems on. When this “other” is suddenly part of “us,” we are forced to look introspectively at our fears and failures and come to new, dangerous conclusions about ourselves as a group and the world as a whole.

Richard Twiss, late Native American author and activist, has been quoted saying “You can only have unity in diversity. Otherwise all you have is uniformity, conformity, or some sense of sameness.”

We stand united because we are diverse. Otherwise we’re not united, we’re just the same.

Our diversity highlights what we are united around–life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality, justice for all, and so on. It is beautiful that people who are different can unite–arguably an America virtue that has been essential to the building of this nation over the past two and a half centuries. Yet this virtue, this characteristic American beauty, is tempered by our fear.

And so the conversation goes. Our fear spirals as the other becomes us. Racism, sexism, homophobia, class warfare, and Islamaphobia are all centered around excluding the other and protecting our comfortable image and perceptions. It always easier to blame women, the “gays,” the blacks, the latinos, the muslims, the poor, the homeless, the addicts, the marginalized, the voiceless, the defenseless than to look at ourselves and ask “Am I part of the problem?” Until we can ask ourselves that, we keep our feet propped up on the empty seats at the table. There is plenty of room for everyone here, but so long as we are determined to keep our comfort and privilege, the “other” will be excluded.

There is enough room at the table for everyone. There is more room.

Thanks for pulling up a chair Coke.

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