Op-Ed: Is It Racist?

By Kiran Aditham 

So, we’ll let the conversation roll in a regular series we dub, “Is it Racist,” which is essentially the brainchild of Gitamba Saila-Ngita, a multidisciplinary designer and innovation strategist, living, working, and playing between CT / NYC / SF. He is the founder and chief innovation strategist of DEFT COLLECTIVE, a creative innovation agency based in Hartford, Connecticut.

My name is Gitamba Saila-Ngita and I once helped an agency sell sugar water to children. I’ve also helped them sell new technologies, ideas, and other people’s culture. But what I’ve always found funniest is when I’ve been hired to make things more, “urban” and by “urban” they meant “black”. Race is a topic that in the United States at times feels like we’re trying to seriously look at it with a fine lens and other times completely turning a blind eye to avoid it because it might make for a lack of a better word a few folks, butt hurt.

Recently in the last few months I’ve found that for advertising folks and almost always on this blog we’re hashing over if something is, “racist or not”. Mainly under the pretense that a group of people were offended by the subject matter in the ad and have used the internet to voice their opinion. I reached out to Kiran because I wanted to hopefully start a casual dialogue about the matter from the perspective of ad folks who clearly make these communications for their respective clients.


First let’s define some things so we can look at this objectively.

Racism is defined by most dictionaries as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities     and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular  race” and a racist as “a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that a certain human race is     superior to any or all others. For fun, let’s throw in offensive as “causing resentful displeasure; highly irritating, angering, or annoying”

With those thoughts in mind, I wanted  to find an ad each time I or anyone else writes for this series and put it through those quantifying factors with understanding that the third one is purely subjective to an individual or group.

In the case of Mountain Dew spot that was “accidentally aired” on TV when it was only meant to be online, there are a few things that got people up in arms. Having a white woman assaulted is an instant no-no, having a white cop single out a bunch of hood lookin’ black kids, that’s another strike. But in the context of the ad, they are very clearly saying that a goat is actually the one responsible for assaulting said woman. They’re asking, like most ads, to suspend belief for a minute or two so they can sell you something.

So, is it racist? No. It’s not. But it’s pretty offensive to some folks; I’ll give you that. But for an ad clearly meant for demographic of folks who listen to Odd Future & Tyler The Creator, the creative is on point. Should the offended folks even have been watching these ads? That’s a topic for another post.

Tyler the Creator [born Tyler Okonma] is a 22-year-old black kid from Southern California and part of a generation born in the 90’s who are probably more comfortable with confronting race than any other generation before them. He’s also riding the wave of teens and twenty-something that are maneuvering creating content and personal brands online out of nothing like no other generation before them. A perfect example of that ethos and attitude can be found in the Odd Future’s song, “Oldies”:

[Tyler the Creator] “This is for the niggers in the suburbs
And the white kids with nigger friends who say the n-word
And the ones that got called weird, fag, bitch, nerd
Cause you was into jazz, kitty cats, and Steven Spielberg
They say we ain’t actin’ right
Always try to turn our fuckin’ color into black and white
But they’ll never change ’em, never understand ’em
Radical’s my anthem, turn my fucking amps up
So instead of critiquing and bitchin’, bein’ mad as fuck
Just admit, not only are we talented, we’re rad as fuck, bitches”

Clearly Tyler isn’t afraid to talk about race in his music and neither in the imagery and language in most if not all of his music video’s and interviews. He knows he’s black, he knows that you know he’s black, and that’s not really a problem for him. Mountain Dew gave him cash, he made an ad, his fans probably dug the ad and I’m a-ok with that. I actually never found this offensive but  surprisingly relatable.

I grew up in predominately white suburbia but I was born and raised overseas in parts of the world like Africa, Europe and Asia. I’d like to say the fact we as a modern society still need to identify each other by the color of our skin is f**ckin’ ridiculous. I’ve had black people tell me, “I’m not black enough” because of the way I speak, the music I listen to and the way I dress.

Paradoxically, I’ve had white people tell me, “I’m so well spoken” because I’m not shuckin’, jivin’ and performing soft shoe when they see me. [PSA: White people, this is not a compliment]

I know it’s naive to think we’ll ever see past racism as a social construct that comes with an astronomical amount of baggage when we live in a world where, rappers are used to sell cereal to suburban white kids, I’m the only person of color in a meeting for a brand [I once had a brand manager ask to touch my dreads after a pitch meeting] and brown and yellow folks barely get any air time at all.