58 thoughts on “Racist or not?

  1. Interesting. Finally caught what the OP was hinting at as I was watching for the second time.

    To the extent it’s relevant – and I think this is why I was “slow on the uptake” – the two actors in question are playing their recurring roles as co-workers at Snapple HQ whom they’ve portrayed in a number of commercials over time. They’re the two funniest characters from the ongoing ad series and are often paired up together (does anyone remember the one where the two of them were dorkily pretending to be hiphoppers while riding in an elevator until the door opened and someone walked in?). This long predates the new “Half & Half” product (re-)launch. So it’s not as though someone called central casting up with this in mind. Theirs were the obvious characters to do the wrestling match scene even apart from considerations of color (though they could have switched the sides, I suppose).

    By the way, does anyone know if this the same old (but rather good) product that was formerly called, I think, “Diet Snapple Ice Tea Lemonade”? Or did Snapple actually change what’s inside the bottle?

  2. Below are the vote percentages from “colorlines”? Would anyone care to say why these differences exist?

    Totally Racist  32.18%  (84 votes)
    Has Racial Undertones  44.83%  (117 votes)
    Don’t see what the big deal is…  22.99%  (60 votes)
    Total Votes: 261

  3. The Colorlines discussion is here:

    Of course, the votes in comment #2 are just those at a particular time.

    I thought that the commercial raised an interesting question about what racist products are. Now I am concerned that the differences mean some of the results are due to differences in something like perception. Could readers of Colorlines be genuinely perceiving something others are missing? Perhaps, for example, black people working closely with issues of race are seeing remnants of stereotypes that many white folk would miss.

  4. I’ve watching this commercial several times.

    If you switched the roles, people would be complaining it’s racist because it’s tea and he’s asian. If you didn’t include an asian person, other people would be complaining about lack of asian representation in Snapple commercials.

    So no, it’s not racist. Asian peope are allowed to wear yellow and like tea.

  5. Jessica, I’m not sure what your argument for saying it is not racist really is. It might be, “However you do it, people will complain. so it’s not racist.” That’s not a good argument.

    Another might be “They’ve reverse some of the stereotypical features; e.g., the asian likes lemonade while the black man likes tea. So it isn’t racist.” That doesn’t look like a very good argument either. There are ways of reversing stereotypes that reinforce them, and this may do that.

  6. I’ll admit that I’m confused about what is being construed as possibly racist here. Also, what does it mean to have racial or racist undertones? I worry that that’s true of any advertising that features non-white people: given that whiteness is still considered “normal”, the question of why a non-normal person is featured can be asked, and can then be answered in some negative way.

  7. I agree with many that it is not racist. It seems to me that something should only be called racist if it plays a role in promoting racial oppression in one way or another (however subtle). But I do not see how this commercial really does that, despite the connections with race.

  8. As someone who has studied whiteness- re white privilege- what bothered me on a second viewing was the comment at the end about it not mattering as it mixed well or something along those lines- this reinforces the idea of white privilege I think- if people who aren’t white behave in white ways people tend to be accepted in white society more easily. So yes it’s racist.

  9. Arlia, your comment is precisely what I worried about. Man A asks “So which half is your favorite?” Man B replies “They’re blended so perfectly, who cares?” Construing this as being about white privilege is a huge, and implausible, stretch to me. And in fact, I defy you to produce a bit of dialogue, featuring the same characters, that does not have some possible negative interpretation (i.e. that does not reinforce some feature of white privilege).

  10. i find it really uncomfortable that the two non-white characters perform a comic wrestle while white people, who are not (as aria points out) very involved in the outcome, watch. there is some sense of smug superiority in saying, “who cares,” and there are very uncomfortable racial innuendos in the very fact of the comic fight as a spectator sport for the benefit of white folks. anyone remembers the beginning of Invisible Man?

  11. (i don’t know if what nemo says at the beginning about this being a recurring series changes things or not, since i haven’t seen any of the ads).

  12. giovanna, is it that there are any white folks at all watching that makes you uncomfortable? If there were only non-whites, would you no longer be uncomfortable? Or if there were no spectators at all? And why is the comic fight for anyone’s benefit? It seems that there’s a whole bunch of white and non-white people cheering them on.

  13. I saw that another blogger writing about this ad thought that the black actor was at one point inexplicably dressed up to look like a lawn jockey. I assume s/he was referring to the bit where he was portrayed as a stereotypical privileged member of the tea-sipping, fox-hunting, polo-playing set in order to contrast him with the laid-back, “popular” (in the original sense), beach vibe of the lemonade proponent who is portrayed in a tropical shirt in front of a lemonade stand.

    Is this ad triggering in us a form of pareidolia, I wonder?

  14. Maybe I’m simple-minded, but the Asian-American preferring the yellow lemonade and the African-American preferring the tea-colored drink struck me as weird and perverse. A fight over skin colors? My race is better than yours?

  15. But the preferences are against stereotype. Lemonade is a drink of the American South; tea is a drink of East Asia. So flipping their allegiances would also suggest a ‘race fight’ to some people.

    I think I’m with C on this.

  16. What is racist to me is the last comment. You have the Afro-American and Asian fighting in the ring and you have two white men commenting on it in a very objectifying way. “Which half is your favorite” – and the answer is totally racist. “As long as they blend in well I don’t care”. Meaning what? As long as ‘they’ fit in well in ‘our milieu’ they can stay??

  17. Greta, meaning (I think) that both people who prefer drinking lemonade to drinking iced tea, and people who prefer drinking iced tea to drinking lemonade, will like the drink that Snapple is selling. Remember that this is a commercial and the intent of anything the characters say is to cause you to try the product.

    Is speculating about what the made-up Snapple employee really meant when he said that any less fruitless than speculating about who would have won the wrestling match in the commercial?

  18. Greta, I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make sense. The second guy says, and again, I quote “They’re blended so perfectly, who cares?” Clearly they’re talking about the two blending together! There’s not some other substance that represents the milieu in which they’re supposed to blend (like tea and lemonade are only good when they’re sufficient watered down or something). And it’s a bizarre racism indeed that proclaims that Afro-American and Asian people are acceptable only when they are blended with one another (whatever that might mean).

    I really don’t care much about defending Snapple. I would like to see the argument for why this commercial (and not some other commercial like this one but somewhat different) is racist, other than that it just seems so to some people.

  19. The commercial’s surrealism/absurdity invites us to search for a hidden meaning, and the racial identities of the cast members are fairly conspicuous, so it is unsurprising that we would look for a racial or racist subtext here. Indeed, the commercial is as if it had been designed in order to suggest the existence of a racial/racist subtext. But the commercial does not seem to deliver on its promise; apparently, it fails to convey any coherent racial/racist message. It’s like opening a box that is supposed to contain something offensive, and then finding that the box is empty.

  20. I hope I don’t stop comments, but I’m grateful for all those that have been offered. I started off really thinking that the commercial would be the basis for an interesting discussion of what racism really is, and there’re been a number of reflections in effect on that question.

    1. I do really wonder what “racist” adds to “being about race.” I’m inclined to think that it has to be negative in some way, so for that reason and others, the fact that the commercial has visual references to race does not make it racist.

    I don’t think that anyone has suggested that there’s a requirement that those who make the commercial intended it to be denigrating or negative. That doesn’t seem to be a requirement for racism, at least as we have been discussing it.

    2. So what else is there? I asked myself finally how I’d feel if it presented women, with the corresponding changes in gender. So men are in the background as much as white people, and men make the final judgment. I’m not going to say that that is necessarily sexist. However, returning to the commercial, when, as giovanna points out in 12, they are performing for white people and they are portrayed as jokes. I’m getting closer to saying “racism” with that. It’s the depiction of harmful stereotypes: silly women/minorities in the workplace. Still, I don’t want to say that any enactment of a stereotype is sexist or racist.

    3. Right now, I’m thinking that the fact that the white guys are the ones who “say what is the truth” turns it further on toward the racism side. One of them starts at the table and then ends up standing over it all, while the other pronouces the truth. I don’t like that. It’s racist in the way “I love Lucy” was sexist. And perhaps Jackie Gleeson’s bus driver (?) was classist. Or Archie Bunker. If I remember all these correctly, they didn’t really have redeaming features; they were just silly stereotypes. The judgments of others are taken as the privileged points of view.

    4. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t catch the preference/skin color connection. It’s hard to believe that wasn’t intentional too.

    I haven’t been as detailed and subtle as some of you, but I might have summed some things up. Thanks again for in effect taking a puzzling thing seriously.

    ADDED: I think that people who are much more negatively sensitive to the power of whites, as opposed to blacks and other minorities, in our society might much more quickly see it as racist. That might account for the differences between reactions on this site and colorlines. Women, we insist, are underrepresented in philosophy, but minorities are hardly represented at all.

  21. Maybe it’s a lesson of hope… the yellows and browns shouldn’t fight each other, but instead should blend together in peace and harmony.

    (I don’t really think this, btw).

  22. david, I think we were writing at the same time. someone over at colorlines suggests the whole thing is just the man tricking us to talk about the commercial and so increase its range and power. In a way, your take would be a very good explanation of how that was managed.

  23. I’d say the only problem with the ad is that the white guys are the “deciders” at the end. If they’d just been part of the stereotypical sparring–white vs. black vs. asian perspectives–the whole thing would have been fine. It’s actually a good sign when people can joke about about race.

  24. Sorry, I don’t mean to keep pushing the skin color issue, but… whereas a fair number of people of European descent are OK with the term “white” and a fair number of people of African descent are OK with the term “black,” I don’t think the same can be said of people of Asian descent and the term “yellow,” at least not in an English-speaking context. See, e.g.:


    Note especially the short clip. If that doesn’t make you cringe… well, I don’t know what to say.

  25. Remark 17 is dead on. Intentional or not, yellow versus dark brown is the theme here, condescended upon by white.

  26. Alan, if unintentional, would that then depend on whether the particular viewer supplies that theme?

  27. Philscier, I am glad you are bringing us back to this. The term “yellow” hasn’t, i think, been detached from very derogatory contexts. Arguably African Americans have managed to give “black” at least multiple associations.

  28. The theme here in the comments section of Feminist Philosophers is that all of the words (the speech, logos, etc.) are in white. Brown is the background. I cannot believe this is unintentional. The message could not be more clear: brown people, stay in the background; you are not welcome to comment.

  29. It may look as though I or someone else was arguing as Stan is. However, as many of us have insisted time and again in critical reasoning classes, what look to be bad arguments often have suppressed premises that the author supposes her audience is aware of.

    The thing one needs to learn to do is to use one’s imagination to try to figure out those premises. Really, this just required for understanding other people. If we think there aren’t any such premises or that there are only bad ones, that may be a failure on our part as readers.

    So I am not impressed by someone’s finding a similar looking argument that is silly. That’s extremely easy to do most of the time. In fact it is possible with all arguments that are not logically valid. Further, bringing out all the premises that are suppressed is tedious and actually using them would make for highly pedantic speech.

    Sorry for being pedantic here myself, but it’s important to say that trying to figure out why something might be called racist is not simply playing with language.

  30. By the way, my comment (see below) was meant to be an inference to the best explanation. Advertising people do sometimes put in significant elements without realizing their significance. But an enormous amount of their education and subsequent practice helps them to avoid such accidents. Further, we aren’t given any competing explanation of the preferences. So it is hard to believe ….

    4. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t catch the preference/skin color connection. It’s hard to believe that wasn’t intentional too.

  31. Funny that several commenters seem to have missed the problems that would have been present had the non-white roles been reversed. I wonder if we’re not all so disturbed that the leading roles in the commercial were non-white that we have to concoct a subtext that can only be resolved by casting white men in every role!

    It’s probably also worth noting that if a subset of feminist philosophers have to squint and cock their heads to uncover what might contentiously be some racial undertones, then the work is probably not damaging in the way that racist material usually is anyway.

    Also, it’s blatantly sexist.

  32. Excellent points annejjacobson. I would very much like to see the argument, as I am unsure how, in a principled way, to demarcate cases like the Snapple ad and the brown-and-white theme of this blog. Perhaps what makes the color theme of this blog silly is that the idea of the authors of this blog having anything like racist intentions is preposterous. But I also am not clear what weight authorial intentions have on judgments about racism.

    To be sure, there are very clear cases of racism in advertising, and clear cases of non-racist advertising. Perhaps there will be no clear demarcation criteria. But I also cringe at the idea of racism “experts” who can detect racism where others can’t. Of course racism can be subtle and all, but if detectable, it should also be explicable. And if it is, I hope it would be so in a way that allows for the logical possibility of the depiction of people of various races doing various things without the depiction being itself racist.

    As an earlier commenter put it, I would like to think that an Asian man is allowed to prefer lemonade, and to wear the color yellow, without then automatically being part of a depiction of racism. Should any of the actors apologize, as Lisa Chan did?


    Anyway, if the argument is there, somebody please lay it out. It’s very easy to do so in Hoekstra’s ad (see the link above), and I think that those who see the Snapple ad as racist owe us an argument. Those who don’t see it as racist don’t owe us an argument as to why it’s not.

  33. C: i’m not sure anyone argued that the color-skin connection was racist.

    Jay, you’ll find that few of our readers found it definitely racist. A significantly larger percentage of Colorlines readers did find it racist.

    It seems to me that we who see it as racist are having to squint and cock our heads to see how it can looks to black people. That seems to me a very worthy endeavor. Given the power differences in our society, many white people just ignore the points of view of the less powerful.

  34. What? Please see comment number 28, and your response to it (31), as well as numbers 17 and 29. Were those just complete non-sequiturs?

  35. “I am unsure how, in a principled way, to demarcate cases like the Snapple ad and the brown-and-white theme of this blog.”

    Here is one obvious demarcation of the cases. In the commercial, a person is yellow-colored and another person is tea-colored, and those color assignments match the “colors” that those people’s skin are seen to have. In the blog, there is just brown and white, without any assignment of colors to people.

    Here is another demarcation. In the commercial, the colors fight it out, and are judged by a third, who “happens” to be of the historically dominant race. In the blog, the colors are just… there.

    We can argue over whether this constitutes racisim or not. But you can’t see a difference — really?

  36. C: i meant that i didn’t think any one thought the drinkcolor-skincolor was racist. It is wierd. And skincolor is part of a racist theme, supposing there is one. But by itself i wasn’t seeing it as racist, rather than race relevant.

    I might take it back, though, given all the racist uses of ” yellow” that philscrier alludes to.

  37. philscier: Yes, I can tell the difference. The crucial thing is how to tell that the one’s racism and the one’s not. Of course people are unequivocally being depicted in the commercial: they are actors. And they are not doing anything obviously racist. It’s something more subtle than that, involving representation, symbolism, etc. That’s what I want a demarcation of.

    In the blog, the white is the foreground, written on top of the brown. The white “happens” to be of the historically dominant race. And we can totally assign colors to people: the white is what people write, and the brown doesn’t even get to be associated with personhood at all.

    To me, the answer here is that neither the commercial nor the blog theme is racist. But I’m still waiting to hear an argument. If there is nothing more to say than that the commercial has a possible racial-undertone-containing interpretation, that’s nearly useless, unless you can show me something that has absolutely no possible racial-undertone-containing interpretation.

  38. C:

    Before I spend my time composing a reply, I need a clearer idea of what sort of argument you would find to be an acceptable demonstration that the commercial is racist, since you say that what has gone before is insufficient.

    You say, “And they are not doing anything obviously racist.” Presumably the actors don’t need to be acting as racists for the commercial to be racist.

    You say, “It’s something more subtle than that, involving representation, symbolism, etc.”

    You may be able to concoct a story whereby you “assign colors to people” for the blog. But no story concoction is necessary for the commercial. It is no stretch to say that the Asian-descended man is wearing yellow (calling an Asian person “yellow” is derogatory, as already noted) and the African-descended man is wearing brown. They are, in fact, wearing those colors. Then they fight it out (like animals?) while the white man stands cooly above, passing judgment.

    Suppose, e.g., there were two white men fighting and a black man saying that it was the perfect blend. I don’t see how racial undertones could be construed there. I also don’t think that the commercial would “work.” I think it “works” exactly because the yellow man is fighting the brown man, and people raised in this society recognize that unconsciously if not consciously. I don’t think that was an accident. And reducing people to their color, especially when at least one of those (if not both) is offensive.

    Note I haven’t claimed anywhere that it was racist. Above, I said “weird and perverse,” and in the poll, I voted, “has racist undertones.” I can see why you might not think the commercial is racist; however, the analogy to the blog is simply completely bogus. There are definitely racist undertones to the commercial, whereas there are none to the blog.

  39. C: I guess I composed my reply anyway, once I got going. But if you want something further from me, then I need to know what the ground rules are.

  40. Why have them fighting about this while playing ping-pong, or wrestling (in a way that looks something clearly like the fake-sumo wrestling, whatever it’s actually called)? I almost expect there to be a deleted scene that didn’t make it in the final version of them arguing about it while playing a game of one-on-one, or doing something else stereotypically associated with black people.

  41. philscier: Yes, of course the actors do not need to be acting as racists. Much like the commercial I linked to: she is not acting racist (except insofar as she is portraying a racial stereotype), although the thing itself clearly is.

    As to your example: I don’t know why such a commercial wouldn’t “work”. The old “tastes great, less filling” campaign worked along similar lines: a comical competition that, in the end, didn’t matter because both characteristics were found in the one product.

    I also don’t accept the idea that this commercial somehow reduces people to their color. The reason is that I don’t think that when a black person wears black, or brown, or tan, or an Asian person wears yellow, or a person of Native America descent wears red, they are then automatically reduced. Yes, they are (for the most part) wearing colors that are associated with race, but they are not portrayed as acting in a way that reinforces any stereotypes. But if they were being portrayed as stereotypes, I would be fully on board, and agree that they are being reduced: those are cases (like the commercial I linked to) of clear reduction.

    Of course, this was a commercial, so these were in no way fully developed characters, and in that sense, anyone in a commercial is reduced in some way or another. But had it been the case that this were, say, a commercial for a kiwi-strawberry blend, and the black man had dressed in green, and the Asian man had dressed in red, then this would no longer be a racist commercial? It seems very weird to me that just changing the colors they were wearing would take away the racial undertones.

    But even in such a case, it still might have racial undertones, which has to do with the one interesting point I think this discussion has raised. Completely separate from the color-wearing issues, there’s the bit about the two white guys at the end, judging that this whole competition is worthless. I didn’t see that as portraying white privilege (and I still don’t agree), but to me that’s the most sensible criticism of the commercial. However, the characters being judged aren’t being judged via (or because of) their reduction to colors or color stereotypes; rather, they are judging participants in a dispute that is obviously meant to be comical to all parties involved (including the participants, and they are obviously not fighting like animals–you don’t wear an inflatable wrestling suit when you’re really interesting in harming someone else). If they were competing in a way that suggested that this is somehow important to the participants, and white dudes were saying they were not to be taken seriously, this would be quite problematic. But that’s not what’s going on here.

  42. Let me suggest a slightly different approach to the disagreement here. One thing driving it might be how we understand the cultural background. Some people are vividly aware of what it is to be a minority where there is a majority dominant culture that can and will hurt members of the minority. (It can be vice versa, but I don’t think that’s really relevant here.)

    Some people have little or no experience of what this is like. Some white people reading this blog probably have varying degrees of experience of it. Perhaps the white GLBT community can come close to the experience of racial minorities, but I don’t know. So for those who do not experience themselves as the subjects of oppression based on the permanent characteristics of race/gender/sexual orientation, it might be worth trying to imagine a different context for the disagreement and the contest, which is finally judged pointless by a majority member. Suppose then the scene has the figures as a white man and women and the others are (a) Nazi Guards with the commercial for a WWII European audience or (b) Russian Gulag guards with the film for Russians.

    One might object that that is changing the context in irrelevant ways, since it’s putting the scene in a prison. I think the response to that may be that some stretches of our population view themselves more as prisoners in our culture than most of us privileged people realize.

  43. BTW, given the alternative contexts I described, I would take the clip to be at least very cringeworthy.

    I’m not suggesting that to see it as racist you need to think of minorities as prisoners. Rather, the point is that the imaginative exercise might help us see how different perceptions of personal power are influencing/can influence our judgments.

  44. annejjacobson: This comment is baffling to me. Sure, some people might view an arbitrary white person as analogous to a Nazi SS member. But now you’re basically arguing that, because we could re-imagine this commercial as something other than what it is, and that other thing we can imagine would understandably be upsetting, then the original thing is understandably upsetting.

    For that to work, there’s got to be a story to tell about how this re-imagining is not just possible, but is, in fact, how people who are oppressed do (and maybe even *should*) see arbitrary white people.

    On that story though, wouldn’t such a re-imagining render every depiction of a white person and a non-white person racist, because the racism is built-in to the interpretation? If every white person is switched to a Nazi SS member, then yep, I’m on board, and this is obviously a racist commercial, as are many others. There are no arbitrarily-placed Nazis.

    But I just don’t find it very illuminating to say that under an interpretation that inserts racism, this commercial is racist (or has racist undertones).

    Finally, this is not a very good analogy. It’s a bit crazy to think that someone would, here and now, be a Nazi, but not stand for all that Nazism is about. But it’s not crazy to think that someone would, here and now, be white, but not stand for all that white oppression is about. So if there’s a Nazi guard in a commercial, we can pretty much know what that person stands for. But not an arbitrary white person.

  45. Anne, that’s a very thoughtful point. Does this lead us closer to figuring out the answer to the question in the OP’s title, I’m wondering? Or does the subject matter *become* what influences our judgments, or the subjectivity of our judgments themselves?

    You are right on the money when you note that “some stretches of our population view themselves more as prisoners in our culture than most of us privileged people realize”, and this is probably resonating for some who are most troubled by the commercial. Although profound experiences of imprisonment in, and alienation from, one’s own society quite readily cross perceived lines of privilege, as well as any other lines I can think of.

  46. C: I wasn’t comparing them. Rather, you could think of my as giving the following observations:
    1. Background can make a different, as we can see or feel when we think of the commercial as having different persons and backgrounds.
    2. Some kinds of background can make the clip look to present demeaning and derogatory portrayals of the arguers.
    3. People who see the clip as racist may be reacting because their view of the background is much more negative than those who don’t.

    Nemo, thanks for the sympathetic understanding. I am not sure I understand your question, but I think it’s pointing out how complex the attribution of racism might be. And I’m going to have to think about it.

    Suppose minoity members see a joke as very demeaning, but no white person does, then can it be demeaning?. And I might turn that into, if women see something as very demeaning of women, but no men do, can it still be demeaning.? My sense about the last question is completely clear: Yes. And I can give an example: a man who claims a female colleague is just like his wife and withheld information to jerk him about. He might well not see understanding professional colleagues in terms of struggles with his wife as problematic. I suspect there was a time in the not too distant past when many men didn’t see any problem in understanding female colleagues in terms of categories formulated in intimate domestic arrangements. But it is still bad, sexist, etc. of them. In the case I cited, she regarded the information as confidential, and rightly so.

    So to maintain the “objective status” of charges of racism, I think we’d have to say that it is true that white society is oppressive to minorities, even though a lot of whites are utterly clueless about that.

    Now, I agree I haven’t said anything about the truth of the claim about oppression. So maybe the conclusion I am entitled to draw is that the racism of the clip depends on the oppressiveness of the background. The disagreement is traceable to that, and to people’s perception of the background. But nothing I’ve said settles whose perception, if any, is correct.

    Sorry for the longwindedness. I’m thinking on the fly or type, as it were.

  47. The blog post asks, “Is racism simply calling attention to race, directly or indirectly, or is it something more?” That’s an odd question to ask in the context of this post: if racism is simply calling attention to race, directly or indirectly, then this blog post is racist. So I guess the question is not meant to be taken literally. What the author of the post really means is: racism is something more. And I guess everyone agrees with that.

  48. Or we can just treat it as what it is:

    An advertisement trying to make money selling overpriced, flavoured sugar water with no nutritional value.

    Seriously, folks, aren’t we overthinking this a bit?

  49. Did you just ask if a blog post about a Snapple ad is overthought? :-) I was wondering if it’s procrastinating and time-wasting! Sigh, okay, must… grade… papers…

  50. Semantax, I think the better thing to say is that the question is rhetorical. It meant literally, but there’s an expected answer. It really just introduces a topic: what more is needed for us to have racism.

    Compare the teacher who says to a student: “Do you want to pass the course?” Or a dentist who says, “Do you want to avoid getting more cavities?” They’re really meant to put one’s attention on a following question.

  51. I agree with tthose who think the race subtext exists in this commercial. I believe ad makers have found it to their advantage to include controversial imagery and messages in their ads and they use them.

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