When affirmative action becomes too much

Kerry Washington - culled from culturebene.com
Kerry Washington – culled from culturebene.com

I am neither American nor South African and I am also not so conversant with policies put in place in different countries to favor disadvantaged minorities. So, this controversial issue will not be the topic of this post.

All I can say however is, I am happy with the positive impact affirmative action had on the American Film industry, for example, as it certainly helped put at the forefront talented black actors who wouldn’t have found their way there without, at first, producers being required to hire a certain number of people from minorities.

Sydney Poitier and Cicely Tyson may have paved the way on their own, but I strongly believe affirmative action lead us where we are today, with all those gifted black actors starring in mainstream blockbusters, like Eddy Murphy or Denzel Washington, a few years back, or leading on TV hit shows, like Kerry Washington in Scandal, nowadays.

I am not going to talk about all the brilliant minds that were able to further their education thanks to this positive action either.

Affirmative laws certainly permitted minorities to set foot in domains they will have stayed banned from otherwise. So, I think it was a good boost. Then, personal talent, or even marketing value, took the lead and, thankfully, it was not about regulations anymore.

Does affirmative action really promote equity? This is a question that can’t be answered lightly and that I will not tackle today!

What am I referring to here is not affirmative action in its  political or judiciary sense, what I want to talk about is some means used to reinforce a positive image of minorities that can defeat their purpose when abused.

I was watching TV, these last days, and I came to notice a surprising trend in South African adverts. I saw no less than four commercials that were showcasing blacks and whites South Africans, together, in a peculiar way. I would not have paid attention to it, if those adverts were not shown in a row.

The first one, from MasterCard, presents a white mother and her son shopping and inadvertently causing some merchandise to fall all over. Mother and son end up on the floor covered with flour, under the furious gaze of a responsible black female cleaner who can’t believe what a mess they have done that she will have to take care of. The slogan of this advert is: “be smart, shop online with MasterCard”.

 

The second advert also shows a dumb white patient, in an hospital, having to pay extra costs, every meter, while he is pushed down the hospital corridor on a stretcher, then a smart black patient arrives, smiling all the way down the corridor, because, being smarter, he has the right health insurance, without hidden costs.

 

The third advert I saw is about insurance too. And as in the first ones I have just spoken about, the white man is shown as this dumb, unkempt and unshaven guy who doesn’t care about his future while, on the contrary, his counterpart is this handsome smart black man who has everything figured out and the right insurance.

I understand the need for positive narratives for people who have been oppressed and considered as meaningless and inferior for decades and I see the reason why you will try to compensate for past discrimination, and furthermore, I can imagine the protests from black South Africans if the advertisers chose to portray blacks as the dumb ones!

But when I saw a fourth advert going the same way, I couldn’t believe it. This time, it was about a white guy who people are congratulating for a Toyota Aygo that is not his. At the beginning he tries to tell people that “look, this pretty car is not mine!” but after a while he just acts as if it is, until the rightful owner, a black man of course, arrives and the white boy feels like a fool.

 

As an outsider looking at those adverts, showed one after the other in a short period of time, I just thought it was ridiculous and even patronizing. Too much is too much, no matter how good your intentions are and how funny it is supposed to be.


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