If you think that a white guy can’t tell black people that they’re being stupid, well, maybe you should just stop reading here. This week, when the TMZ story of Mary J. Blige and the racist Burger King Chicken commercial showed up on my Facebook page, my political-correctness detector went into overload, sensing as it did, perhaps the most outrageous example of a boy-who-cried-wolf racism argument that I’ve ever heard.
In case you’re not up to speed, Mary J. Blige, whose song “Real Love” had you bouncing around in the early ’90s, was recently hired to appear in a commercial for fast food mega-chain Burger King. Blige is no stranger to endorsement deals, having happily exchanged her face, voice, reputation and crossover influence (a.k.a. WHITE PEOPLE LIKE HER, TOO!!! … or at least don’t find her threatening) in the past for gigantic sacks of cash from companies like Chevrolet, Apple, American Express and Nike, as is her prerogative as a famous person with a positive image.
This time around, Blige was paid a reported $2 million to participate in a commercial advertising Burger King’s Chicken Snack Wraps. BK released a cut (below) via the Internet a couple of weeks ago. Blige and the BK found themselves the targets of an immediate backlash from some rather vocal voices within the black community, spurred on by an open letter on MadameNoir that labeled the spot “buffoonish.” BK pulled the ad early this week, lamely attributing the retraction to copyright and licensing issues. As for the heavily compensated Blige, she apologized, saying that the commercial was not what she had intended.
But here’s the thing. I’ve watched this video literally dozens of times. I’ve listened to every word and examined every character interaction over and over and over again. And I have to tell you: I just don’t get it. Now, there are some rare cases in which I don’t “get it” but still get the fact that some other people “get it.” And sometimes, I even understand why those people “get it.” But this is not one of those cases. Far from it.
Let’s break the 30-second commercial down, shall we?
An average, middle-aged white dude is in line at Burger King. He’s wearing an untucked, blue button-down and khakis (okay, well that’s definitely racist). Behind him, there are two attractive black women, one middle-aged, the other in her teens or twenties wearing headphones. The white dude asks the cashier (she’s Asian, by the way), “What’s in the new chicken snack wraps?”
Before the cashier can answer, her dorky white male boss begins to chime in (sexist!). And then suddenly, Mary J. Blige appears on a stage behind the condiment area, interrupting him to answer the question in verse: “Cris-py chick-en / Fresh lettuce / three cheese-es / French dress-ing / wrapped up in a / tas-ty / flo-ur / tor-till-a / cris-py chick-en / wrapped up in a / a flo-ur / tor-till-a / a flo-ur / tor-till-a.” During Blige’s singing, the camera cuts back and forth to relatively disgusting (at least if you’re not a person who eats fast food regularly) closeup shots of the wrap.
Is it an awful commercial? Absolutely. An even awfuller song, especially for a nine-time Grammy winner? For sure. But not because it’s racist or plays into racial stereotypes against black people.
On the contrary, the only black people in the commercial that I can see are Mary J. Blige (the ridiculously rich R&B singer) and the two hot black women behind the white guy in line. Not one of the employees in the Burger King is black. And there’s no exaggerated bamboozling or buffoonish behavior on the part of anyone in the commercial that would suggest that anyone is making fun of black people or feeding into any kind of racial stereotypes. The commercial simply depicts Mary J. Blige singing a song about a chicken sandwich. That’s it. End of story.
More shocking to me than the reaction to the commercial itself is the response that BK and Blige delivered. They caved into the ridiculous critiques instantaneously and without considering the effect that their decision has on the rest of us, who may be just a little less quick to react the next time someone yells “racist.”
Are we still allowed to show black people playing basketball? Can we show a black guy playing the trumpet in a smoke-filled jazz club? What are these critics going to say when they see the 41-year-old Blige decked out in gorgeous shoulder-length blonde braids as the lone black character in the upcoming movie adaptation Rock of Ages, a film driven by 1980s white-people music? I bet you that, at this very moment, the producers of Rock of Ages, are analyzing every frame that Blige is in to be sure that no piece of crispy chicken comes within 30 feet of her at any given time.
People, this is the year 2012, and it’s been a rough one for the great racial divide to be sure. But things are even worse than I thought if a black R&B star cannot get up on stage and sing a song about a chicken wrap if she so desires. I really hope that these same people who were outraged over this 30-second spot take out full page ads in the New York Times the next time Tyler Perry releases a movie, because if this commercial even has a faint whiff of racism or negative racial stereotyping (which it does not in any way shape or form, in case I haven’t made myself entirely clear), then Tyler Perry might as well don a white hood and renounce his race altogether.
But don’t take my word or MadameNoire’s word for it. Watch the video for yourself, and make up your own damn mind.