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Positioning the other, again

Written by Sherwin, published on October 5, 2009

Picture of bus ad: great mexican taste without the runs

Picture of bus ad: great mexican taste without the runs

So last week I wrote about a bus ad that I photographed and posted claiming that it was racist. But I didn’t really speak to how or why it was racist. And it’s important to be able to say why. Right? Well I think some folks might appreciate it. But it’s not because I want to argue about it. Well, I like to argue a little. But not in a tiresome way. Well, okay, I aspire to be less tiresome. I say this because it can be really tiring to hang out with super critical, righteous folks; especially if they don’t try hard enough to understand you. And I guess I’m feeling a little worried that I’m being that person. I don’t want to be a know-it-all and I don’t want to have to be right all the time. And I don’t want to be self-righteous. And maybe I’m saying all of this because I’m still relatively new to blogging. Or publishing. And some people will never agree with me. And some people will pretend to try to understand but won’t. But, there are some people who are seriously interested. Right?

So I think this explanation of how and why I think the ad is racist is really for: 1) sympathetic readers who see the ad as clearly racist but can’t say why it is, or who perhaps are interested in a different take on it, 2) sympathetic readers who think the ad might be racist but aren’t sure if it is, 3) sympathetic readers who want to understand why the ad is racist but, try as they might, just can’t really see it, 4) unsympathetic readers who think I’m crazy but are still curious about the world and are legitimately interested in the views of others, and sometimes even can change their mind.

The tagline: “GREAT MEXICAN TASTE, WITHOUT THE RUNS”

So the implication of this tagline is that Mexican food gives people diarrhea. And food is made by people. And food is an essential part of culture. Food is also an important way that we racialize people. And perhaps most importantly, Mexican food is invented, mostly, by Mexicans. The thing is that you can’t tell stories about an entire people’s food without also telling stories about those people. So Mexicans are directly implicated in this. And the implication is basically that Mexicans give people the shits.

While many tourists travel to Mexico and have an experience of diarrhea, it’s patently false that all Mexican food gives people the runs. Some readers might think that the tagline is not a universal generalization; it is saying simply that some (not all) mexican food gives people the runs.

But this weaker and more generous reading of the tagline is disingenuous. The reason is that the act of positioning and repositioning yourself in a market place is a common branding practice. The point is not to reposition your organization against some of the Mexican food. The whole point behind the act of repositioning is to be seen as different from most Mexican food. The point is to occupy a unique space in the marketplace. And everyone has a sense for this. Thus a tagline that suggests that this restaurant is unique or different from the vast majority of Mexican restaurants is, in this case, suggesting that the vast majority of Mexican food gives people the runs. The sad fact is that this stereotype already exists among many North Americans and so this kind of racism plays heavily on existing racist ideas.

More then playing on existing ideas, this kind of statement would not be racist without the context of racism that it’s operating in. So for example, imagine an ad for a German restaurant that had the tagline, “GREAT GERMAN TASTE, WITHOUT THE RUNS”. This would have a similar humour about it. And this tagline would be similarly memorable. But it would also be a little odd. That’s because there is no cultural story and no racial stories that the tagline is relying on. And while Germans do suffer from a kind of racism now and then here in North America, it’s on an entirely different level from the kind of racism that Mexicans suffer from. 1

This is how meaning is made. The meaning of our words and images and sounds that we produce, rely heavily on the contexts and cultures and languages that they are situated in. If I privately call my gay lover a fag, it’s really different than if I publicly call my prime minister a fag. Same words, vastly different meanings. And the meaning that is made also depends on the hearers. And writers of ads have a duty to ensure that the words that they write don’t contribute to the images, stereotypes, and falsehoods that propagate demeaning and derogatory constructions of an entire race, culture, gender, nationality, sexuality, ethnicity, class or religious practice.

The ugly meanings that this tagline is both relying on and creating, include 2:

  • Mexican food gives people the shits
  • Mexican food is dirty
  • Mexicans are dirty

If the ad isn’t intended to be racist, then how can it be racist?

The short answer to this question is simply to say that intentional racism is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for racism. So it’s a common and important practice to distinguish between intentions and impacts when assessing whether a particular act or a particular artifact is racist or not. And it’s widely held that while intentions are interesting, it’s much more important to consider the impacts. Considering the impact this ad has on Mexicans is one important test for racism actually. It is common, for example, for people of a dominant culture or dominant race, to not notice they myriad subtle and not-so-subtle acts of racism. Probably most white Canadians who read this ad, don’t see or experience the tagline as racist. But none of this is evidence that the ad is not racist. The impacts of racism are most often felt by those who it is about.

They’re making a joke – how can humour be racist?

The humour card isn’t cool anymore so I won’t spend much time on it. Suffice to say that this kind of thing is usually more funny for the dominant class of people and since many obviously racist jokes are considered funny by some bigot, somewhere, this question of whether something is racist is totally orthogonal to the question of whether something is humourous.

They’re selling Mexican food so why would they be racist against Mexicans?

This is an interesting question! This is really why I was moved to photograph the ad in the first place. Branding and advertising have a history for playing on this kind logic:

  1. People have racist ideas
  2. We want these people to be our customers
  3. We will use their ideas to reposition ourselves as unique and memorable, even if it’s at the expense of entrenching these racist ideas
  4. We will do this because it’s not our job to make the world just but it is our job to get customers

But the tagline is true some of the time.

Maybe, but it’s implying that this is true most of the time. And that’s messed up

  1. Granted, I’m not going to argue for this here, and if you disagree with this you will probably find the overall thrust of my argument less convincing. That said, if you disagree with the claim that there is significant problem with the way Mexicans are racialized in Canada and the USA, we might have other deeper communications challenges. Not that these are insurmountable. They’re not. And they’re important gaps to cross, but I won’t try to do this here.
  2. This why the tagline is effective. What they’re effectively saying is that their food is tasty like Mexican food, but it’s not dirty like Mexican food. My hypothesis is that the ad writers and restaurant owners aren’t Mexican. But importantly, my criticisms of this ad aren’t neutralized if it turns out the ad writers or the restaurant owners are Mexican.
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Archived comments

  1. :.. I am really thankful to this topic because it really gives great information ;,,

  2. re.sister.with.love says:

    And for context, the owner (I gathered, from personal conversations with him) is not from Mexico (is white), lived there for a while, enjoyed the food, and came back to Canada to start the restaurant.

    To take and use parts of a different people’s/ country’s food or culture for your own profit while simultaneously denigrating the context from which it came from is the definition of cultural appropriation which is one way in which racism is practiced.

    Perhaps, Mexico would have more money for public health infrastrucutre if it wasn’t for NAFTA. To discuss “runs” in Mexico without discussing historical processes (of which Canada and the owner’s whiteness is a big part) that continue to contribute to it is dishonest and perpetuates racism.

  3. Max says:

    How about:

    “Great American Taste, Without Turning You Into a Fat F*ck!”

    “Great English Food, That Actually Has Taste!”

    Offensive?

  4. Becky says:

    I definitely agree, Hugh, that we need to be subtle in our analysis of subtle racism – especially, as you say, when we’re talking with people who aren’t already convinced. In fact, I think that part of the problem is that there often isn’t enough subtlety in analyses of racism in the media.

    And maybe this also gets at the frustration that I often feel when I’m talking to people who aren’t already convinced, that the subtle arguments or distinctions that I’m working hard to make get shut down or side-lined by broad sweeping generalizations.

    So how do we get people to be more interested in the subtleties?

  5. Hugh says:

    “It assumes that people only have a certain capacity or tolerance for race-analysis, and that we don’t want to waste that precious resource on such a small example racism”

    That’s an interesting way of putting it Becky, and I worry that it might actually be accurate.

    To be clear: I don’t think that we shouldn’t call out more subtle incarnations of racism, and I think you have an excellent point that those might in aggregate be a or the major part of racism in a politeness-aspirant country like Canada. But I think if we want to be convincing to people who aren’t already convinced then our challenge of subtle racism needs to subtle itself. If there are important distinctions to be made, then they probably should.

  6. becky says:

    Great discussion on this!

    I disagree that this is a case of ‘crying wolf’ though. I think it is actually a prime example of the kind of subtle racism that passes so easily in Canada, and that continues to make those of us who are white as normal, and those who aren’t as somehow not-quite-normal. And while there are certainly cases of more violent racism that also need to be addressed, that doesn’t mean that the more subtle moments of racism should be ignored. In fact, I think it is precisely this kind of logic that allows subtle racism to continue. And personally, I’m not satisfied that because there is worse racism out there, that we shouldn’t address this moment racism.

    To think that this is ‘crying wolf’ is a sort of zero-sum approach to challenging racism. It assumes that people only have a certain capacity or tolerance for race-analysis, and that we don’t want to waste that precious resource on such a small example racism. However, I believe that racialized thinking is what allows for racialized violence. Making examples of racialized thinking more explicit helps us understand what makes racialized violence possible.

  7. sherwin says:

    Hi Hugh! I always enjoy your analysis! Yeah, “hateful” maybe doesn’t fit for this ad. That said, I definitely think there’s degrees of racism and there’s definitely degrees of impact of racism. How could there not be? I would love to hear sometime what the threshold for capital-R Racism is. I’m going to keep thinking about how to make the long-thin lines look more like fat short lines.

  8. Hugh says:

    This feels like an absolutist set of claims being directed at a marginal case. You draw some long lines to get from the content of the ad to full-blown racism, and some of those lines strike me as thin in places. If we were going to differentiate on degrees of racism, maybe I could buy that the ad was a little racist, and perhaps I could even be convinced that it was more-than-harmelessly racist, but I’m iffy on Racist.

    I take your point that racism is something felt by the denigrated group, and as a white guy I might not have the background to understand the full impact of the ad. But it’s a smiling cactus riffing on the fact that Canadians often get diahrea when they go to Mexico, which they do. “Hateful”? There’s a danger in crying wolf.

    And, welcome to blogging! where you can put yourself on the line by attempting to articulate your honest thoughts, and then feel cut down by a single snarky drive-by comment.

  9. […] thinking lately that maybe I have a duty to also contact the owners of the ad that I wrote about here and also here, and let them know that I think their ad is racist. Or maybe I have a duty to the bus […]