It’s a common racial stereotype: black people love eating fried chicken.
Now I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t true for me. You’ll catch me every once in a while in line at Chicken Shack or in the Popeye’s drive-thru (not soon before a long session at SPAC). I eat my fried chicken wherever and whenever I want, and I don’t care who’s around.
And that’s how it should be.
So when R&B singer Mary J. Blige and Burger King were slammed last week after the release of a commercial promoting the new “crispy” chicken snack wraps (fried chicken wrapped in a tortilla with some other stuff), I wasn’t exactly ready to march over near Rebecca Crown armed with a pitchfork and torch over the ad.
In the ad, Mary J. Blige stands on top of a table in BK, which turns into a mini concert hall as she sings in reply to a customer’s question, “What’s in the new chicken wraps?” Blige goes on to sing into a microphone about the wrap’s ingredients, as the store patrons jam along with her.
Following outcry from social media claiming it was “racist,” Burger King’s ad disappeared from their YouTube channel and was pulled from TV, although the chain claimed it was due to “licensing issues” and not public outrage. And for what it’s worth, Burger King apologized to Blige for releasing an unfinished version of the ad, following her statement to fans expressing regret that BK didn’t release the ad according to creative plans.
To fans, Blige is known as “queen of hip-hop soul.” And she can sing her face off — there’s no denying that. So hearing Mary sing about something as inane as “crispy chicken, fresh lettuce, three cheeses, fresh dressing wrapped up in a tasty flour tortilla” over a horrible hip-hop beat, I began cackling like a hyena.
But I’m able to separate the stereotype from the situation. I laughed because of how horribly the commercial was produced. But still, some folks choose to mock black people for eating a piece of fried poultry.
The mockery dates back to when minstrelsy and blackface were common fare in American pop culture, with fried chicken and watermelon being foods used to produce racially charged and demeaning representations of black people.
Now, that’s racist. The BK ad isn’t.
Culturally targeted advertising isn’t something new, and this is clearly another example. David Beckham’s ad promotes the new BK smoothies. He’s an athlete and smoothies are viewed as a health food, hence the association. With Jay Leno’s, we see him rolling up in the restaurant to order, driving a car from his vast, expensive collection. Mention is made of the drive thru and the expansive options, hence the association with Jay’s car collection. Mary J. Blige was likely chosen for the crispy chicken wraps because of her appeal to the African-American market and the reality that many black people eat fried chicken.
I remember from my childhood a Church’s Chicken ad featuring gospel artist Kirk Franklin and his choir singing the praises of the food chain, singing “Gotta love it! Gotta love it! Church’s Fried Chicken.” But no one was saying anything about the ad being racist, despite it featuring black people singing about fried chicken. Perhaps because it was more tastefully done, or perhaps because the national conversation about race wasn’t as salient as it is now, especially in the current political environment.
Regardless, the anger over BK’s ad is a bit misplaced. Stereotypes are based on collective realities and they aren’t inherently negative, but they can become negative when they get misinterpreted, misappropriated and acted upon in a manner to discriminate and denigrate. That’s what happened with fried chicken during minstrel shows.
All the outrage over the “racism” in Blige’s BK ad demonstrates feelings of embarrassment and cultural shame, especially for those who eat fried chicken. Since when it is not OK to be open about liking fried chicken?
Perhaps some fear being mocked, as is reflected in Wendy Williams’ reflection about why she, as a black woman, won’t eat fried chicken or watermelon or drink Kool-Aid while on her daily talk show. Others might still harbor resentment about the horridly offensive use of the fried chicken stereotype in minstrelsy. Yet at the end of the day, Blige’s BK ad wasn’t created with the intention to mock and denigrate black people, however based in stereotypes it may be.
Now, not all black people have the same taste in food. I’m not the biggest fan of watermelon and neither are some of my friends (who happen to be black). And in reality, there are many people across cultures on this campus that’ll hit up Chicken Shack. Clearly, stereotypes are not universal and are even in some ways misinformed.
But I eat fried chicken and so does my family. And we’re not apologizing for it.
Originally published 4/12/12 in The Daily Northwestern. Link to source here.