Photo: Screenshot from Procter & Gamble's "The Talk"

"The Talk" Is Selling Soap, Not Social Justice

Procter & Gamble's ad about the dialogue parents have with their Black kids about racism would be a triumph if it didn't reek so much of opportunism.
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If you are Black, you’ve likely had The Talk at some point and in some form, with your family, whether as a child with your parents, or as a parent with your child. I’m not a historian, but I’m quite sure that The Talk has permeated Black space since the days of slave ships and whips. When non-Black parents hear the words “The Talk,” they imagine the dreaded sex talk, the death talk, even perhaps the divorce talk. And we have those, too. But non-Black families do not have to have what has become a mainstay on the Black American parenting syllabi. And many non-Black people are shocked to learn that this conversation between parents and children is a necessary and devastating rite of passage.

The Talk I’m referring to is the critical dialogue between a parent and Brown child on topics of race and bias, in which a parent must strike a careful balance of reinforcing Black beauty and amplifying Black excellence, while critically reminding our children to protect their necks in social scenarios where their Black lives might not matter.

Last week Procter & Gamble (P&G) Company, capitalized on this conversation with an advertisement commercial titled “The Talk.” Their romantic spin on the dialogue spans several eras that presented topical racism from the 1950s to present day. The initiative was born out of P&G’s "My Black Is Beautiful" campaign in an effort to “talk about the talk so we no longer need to have [the talk].” The video has since gone viral. However, as the saying goes, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

“The Talk” is an affecting piece of theater, with its richly narrated theme that blends visuals with verbal truths. The treatment is pressed against a sequential timeline and weighted by dramatic chords. Viewers witness archetypes of strong Black moms, shooting from the hip, telling it how it is, advising beautiful cocoa-complected children to appreciate their aesthetics, keep their heads up, and play it safe in a white-supremacist world that mostly harbors contempt for them. But it undercuts other representations of The Talk. Black children have The Talk with their fathers, too. And The Talk isn’t always so mediagenic: Recall what we witnessed during the Baltimore riots, when terrified Baltimore mom Toya Graham used physical violence as the language for her Talk with her son, to deter him from hurling a brick at a cop, in her desperation to protect him from becoming a casualty of police brutality. The Talk is not so fluid or monolithic as Procter & Gamble’s ads, aimed at African-Americans, in particular Black mothers, would have us believe, as they paint our experience with one stroke, and in one dimension. While Procter & Gamble may spark a dialogue among Black and white Americans about racial injustice, the company ultimately has one goal: to win over consumers. Here they’re showing they’re willing to exploit the devastation of white supremacy to sell soap—and that will not wash out centuries of blood on this nation’s hands. This isn’t cynicism, it’s simply reality, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen it.

We’ve seen this before: Pepsi tried and miserably failed to evoke the resistance by “selling” cultural tolerance and the defusion of police brutality through the power of Pepsi, as dispensed by peace-broker … Kendall Jenner. Heineken offered a kind of an antidote, “Worlds Apart,” an ad about the power of dialogue that paired people with polar-opposite identities to work together and discuss their differences over their beer. It was well received. Social-justice content is undeniably compelling, and speaks to us in this particular moment, and the product is treated as the distraction, just as it is with “The Talk.” Here we are remembering the brand and debating its intention—but what are we doing to take the message further? Are we internalizing it? Are we furthering the conversation or doing something about it? Not so much. But we buy the soda, the beer, the soap.

At the end of the day, big-business advertisement is just that—big-business advertisement—and P&G is leader of the pack. According to Business Insider, P&G topped 2013’s biggest spender list, at nearly $5 billion—to date, that number is now $100 billion. Though “The Talk” is not offering a tangible product in the ad itself, let’s not pretend these spending initiatives are devoid of hidden agendas. It is no mistake that the two-minute film is solely outfitted in Blackness. If social justice against racial bias is the commodity, then Black women spenders are the consumer. In an enthusiastic tweet a Black woman stated she would be buying Tide, the P&G laundry detergent, forever. P&G is acting from a place of power and paternalism and, by default, is paying to steer a Black conversation. The campaign not only silences Black voices beyond idealistic Black mothers, it places the onus to discuss and desist the talk onto the Black collective—a task that African-Americans have been unsuccessful at for centuries. Both are an affront to Black empowerment and the façade the “My Black Is Beautiful” campaign projects.

The white response points to where the real work is needed. If Procter & Gamble were sincere in their effort to snuff racial bias, they should have redirected the focus of “The Talk” to its rightful audience: whiteness. The visual composition should have centered well-intentioned Caucasians (liberals and right-wingers alike), having a new kind of talk with their white children. That talk would not only reprimand and warn against racist ideas and behavior, but also check white fragility at the door. The far-right slams the video for being anti-white even though—with the exception of a scene that shows white teens chasing down a young Black boy—“The Talk” does not make clear or single out any particular race group. Cops, coaches, and well-to-do students are not all white and all whites do not pay poor compliments to pretty Black girls. This charge hints at the way some whites perceive and center themselves in places of privilege and power—suchlike big businesses. Liberal white people expressed more sympathy and dismay at the very thought of Black parents having “the talk.” @ChelseaClinton tweeted “Painful & powerful… White parents need to talk about racism & hate with our children throughout their lives.”

But why stop there?

It’s not enough to talk the talk. I’d like to see some influence others to walk the walk, to speak out and act boldly against racial bias as well, instead of leaving it up to big business exploitation to merely spark these conversations in the name of selling more soap, more detergent, more diapers, and even more bullshit to fill them up. Procter & Gamble cannot save the nation from itself. But collectively, Americans can.  

While “The Talk” is unlikely to change a white-supremacist attitude, it should be more than a catalyst for discussion, but one for action among all others. Because all people benefit from confronting institutions that oppress any human citizen.

We live in a time when we must be mindful of the messenger, hella skeptical of the message, and by all means reject the white gaze. We must know how language and race and power work. Until a significant shift in how big business and whiteness tackle race occurs, Black parents must continue to have The Talk. Until then, I ain’t buying what they selling. How ’bout you?

 

Ida Harris is a writer and an assistant editor for Black parenting website My Brown Baby. When she is not critiquing Black art, culture, and society, she is creating beautiful art while listening to Trap music—preferably Future. Her articles have appeared on My Brown Baby, Black Enterprise, HuffingtonPost, Blavity, and Medium.
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Ida Harris