The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 27, 2013

Aisha Sultan: Tempest in a cereal bowl

By Aisha Sultan
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — The Cheerios commercial that sent shock waves through the media was so controversial that I had to watch it twice to figure out what I was missing.   

An adorable little girl is asking her mother about the cereal's heart-healthy benefits. A sleeping dad has a pile of Cheerios on his chest, ostensibly placed there by a daughter who misunderstood the product's cholesterol-clearing mechanism.   

Oh, the father in the spot is black, the mother is white, and the daughter looks like a blend of the two. Is it surprising that some took exception to this portrayal and posted hateful rhetoric about it on YouTube?   

Part of the Internet's function, in fact, might be as an anonymous release valve for society's disgruntled, dislocated and disturbed. For those who perceive themselves as powerless against the changing tides of culture, economy and demographics, the misspelled, caps-locked ugliness spouted online is their power.   

In a most reasonable manner, General Mills asked to disable comments on the YouTube video featuring the spot. This became national news.   

The reaction to the reaction was over-the-top. News reports said the spot and the reaction to it sparked a heated conversation about race and forced us to confront attitudes about interracial families.   

This plays directly into the aim of the trolls. They want us to think there is something abnormal about a completely normal situation. They want to plant seeds of doubt -- to make us think that we might actually live in a country in which a sizable proportion of the population takes issue with a mixed-race family about as controversial as whole-grain oats.   

They want us to believe we live in an America completely different from the one that actually exists.   

In fact, mixed-race marriages in America have grown by 28 percent over a decade, according to the 2010 census, from 7 to 10 percent.   

Nearly two-thirds of Americans said it "would be fine" with them if a member of their own family were to marry someone outside their own racial or ethnic group, according to a 2012 Pew Research study.   

We've gone from a country which, in 1986, had just a third of its citizens viewing interracial marriage as acceptable, to one in which more than a third say that a close relative is married to someone of a different race, according to Pew researchers.   

The purported controversy over an ad featuring such a family is much ado about nothing.   

There will always be those who prefer to date or marry within their race or ethnicity. Unfortunately, there will also always be knuckle-draggers among us, who shout horribly racist comments online. Why amplify their voices?   

"Do we really want to hear the hate pour forth from all the whackos on the planet who have access to YouTube, each of them posting 40 kabillion times under different aliases to make their numbers seem larger? No. We get it. You're racist. Let it be your secret," says Los Angeles-based writer Cynthia Liu, who blogs about race, culture, gender and parenting.   

"This is a tempest in a cereal bowl, right?" Liu said. In fact, she posits that Cheerios' move could even be an "upside-down, inside-out" way to dog-whistle to open-minded parents who otherwise might not buy the cereal. After all, when General Mills comes out taking a stand against the bigots and standing by their commercial, it's great free publicity for their brand.   

The most reasonable explanation for all the attention this has generated has come from the 6-year-old star of the commercial, Grace Colbert, whose mother told MSNBC that her daughter thought all the fuss was over her great smile.   

Wisdom from the mouths of babes.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.