Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I’ve been thinking about race and racism lately, especially as they relate to something playwright David Mamet once said: “Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth."

Last week, Supermodel Naomi Campbell was ready to sue Cadbury in the U.K. for its ad comparing her to a bar of chocolate. (Actually, comparing a bar of chocolate to her.) “Insulting and hurtful,” she said. Now the firm has officially apologized and removed the ad from circulation. Campbell has accepted the apology.

Was she right to feel insulted or overreacting? Black people themselves use the names of foods and spices to refer to their varying shades of color—ginger, cinnamon, café au lait—and chocolate. But what members of a group say about themselves and what they’re willing to let others say about them are, of course, two different things.

It’s all in the context. One summer day in the early 60s I was in a delicatessen in the all-white, working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, where I then lived. Four or five black men who’d been repairing the nearby el came in to buy their lunch. They were tall and broad-shouldered, their skin glistening from heat and hard work. Laughing and joking, they seemed to fill up the narrow store. Daughter #1, who was about three at the time and had probably never seen an African-American up close before, gazed at the men towering above her and cried out with absolute joy, “Oh, look at all the chocolate people!”

No offense meant, none taken.

For some whites in that same neighborhood, however, the fear of black people moving in was so great that when a homeowner had the temerity to put a House For Sale sign in his window, thus circumventing the redlining practices that real estate brokers employed to keep blacks out, a few of my neighbors banded together to burn a cross in his front yard. I overheard one man say, “We don’t want any chocolate puddings around here,” the venom in his voice so palpable, I felt physically sick.

I’m pretty sure that, unlike that man, no one at Cadbury—probably an all-white firm—intended to offend. But neither can any of them claim the innocence of a chocolate-loving three-year-old. Campbell says that more diversity on company boards is needed to prevent this kind of insensitivity, and of course she’s right. More awareness and empathy among the whites on the board would go a long way too. In my opinion, saying, “It was not our intention that this campaign should offend Naomi, her family or anybody else and we are sincerely sorry that it has done so” is not enough. They should have known better and they should take steps to ensure that in the future they do.

So, “Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth." Agree? Or not?

I’d like to attempt an honest dialogue on the subject and invite anyone with the same aim to join in.