President-Elect Obama (I still can't quite believe I'm writing that) promised us change. I have no idea whether he will actually deliver on that promise; I hope he does, and I suspect that he will be, at minimum, a change from the last eight years of malevolent machinations and incompetent nincompoopery.

But I don't know whether his administration will accomplish much in the way of fundamentally changing the American political landscape. The American people are stubborn, and their government is a lumbering behemoth whose sheer size makes difficult altering its course in any significant way. Politically, we are designed for stability—for the resistance of change.

Culturally, however, we are wondrously elastic.

So, though it remains to be seen whether President-Elect Obama will effect political change, the very existence of a President-Elect Obama has already begun to effect cultural changes.

There's the glitch in the Matrix I talked about on election night, which has implications for almost all of us. There's the metaphorical ripping of the "keep-out" sign off the edifice, the pure inspirational joy at which Kate captured in "My President is Black!" There's the tangible hope for the possibility of change which has created new teaspoon-wielders all over the place.

And there are the commercials on my TV.

(Settle in, TiVo devotees.)

Although I live in a broadcast market that encompasses the entirety of Chicagoland (population 10 million), including Chicago itself (36.77% African-American) and Gary (84.03% African-American), I never saw commercials cast entirely with African-Americans unless I was watching "black programming," e.g. Showtime at the Apollo or Fresh Prince reruns. Even then, the rare commercials for local black-owned business were the only exceptions to what were typically cringe-inducing panders—McDonald's setting its current jingle to a hip-hop beat or Walgreens using a voiceover artist with a regional black dialect. One could very nearly hear in the background the white corporate execs telling their white advertising team to "put something together for the urban markets."

And, suffice it to say, there has been no dearth of adverts cast totally with whites, even as multicultural advertising has become the standard.

I first noticed the change during the primaries. There was an insurance commercial (All State, maybe) which was shot from a first-person perspective as the owner of a parked car which had been sideswiped surveyed the damage. Only when the owner got close enough that we could see his reflection in the side mirror was the owner revealed to be a black man. It wasn't a function of some too-clever-by-half "Smack My Bitch Up" reversal that the reveal was notable; it was just a function of my conditioning (and privilege)—I didn't expect to see a black man in that role. (Or anyone else but a young, able-bodied white guy, for that matter.)

Then I started seeing adverts for cleaning products that featured black women playing "the beleaguered mom/wife whose life is made easy with some miracle product." I hate those commercials with a red hot fiery passion, and wish they wouldn't be made at all—but, as long as they are, there's no reason we need to pretend that the only moms in all of America are white. It was jarring (pleasantly so) to see black women playing "mom/wife" in these ads in addition to just magical cleaning woman, err, spokesperson.

(Side Note: Can someone in Hollywood please give Diane Amos a starring role in something besides Pine-Sol commercials? But I digress…)

And these commercials weren't running only during "black programming" anymore.

Last night, I saw two commercials back-to-back cast entirely with African-Americans. The first was for some educational video game (VTech, maybe), with a young sister and brother playing the games and showing their various accomplishments to their mom. Right after that was a Hallmark Christmas commercial with Mom, Dad, and two little girls—a family composition that seemed uncannily familiar, ahem.

It would be an oversight not to note that a big part of this new advertising egalitarianism is, of course, the inherent cynicism to marketing, which exploits for all its worth anything popular—and the Obamas are damn popular these days. But it would be a similarly egregious omission to ignore the cultural significance of (traditional, conservative) Hallmark airing what is, in my recollection, the first ever major holiday advert in this market featuring a black family alone. Not a black family among many different families, but the family into whose window we're peeking to see their Christmas celebration.

The Hallmark family.

Think for a moment about the multiple meanings of those words.

There are certainly people reading this who are fixing to argue that a single commercial, or even a few, isn't a harbinger of practical change. That is correct—the commercials themselves are not. But they reflect quite certainly a change that has already occurred (President-Elect Obama having smashed a paradigm stretching back 219 years to April 30, 1789).

Then there is this: The mere existence of these ads as part of the cultural detritus up against which we bump every day changes the culture. Even playing to people half-paying attention while sleepily sprawled on couches, or people with their thumbs on a fast-forward button, or people passing by store windows behind which the ads silently play on marked-down televisions, they transmit a message just as surely as all the negative messaging that bombards each of us every single day.

Bigotry does not spring forth from a void; nor does enlightenment.

It matters that white people in this still largely-segregated country will register, consciously or not, the images of a black family as part of the mainstream. It matters that black people will see themselves and their families reflected back for a change.

This is the opposite of Othering. This is inclusion.

All the civil rights legislation and judicial decisions in the land can't conquer the separate-but-equal of cultural segregation. Where white families are consistently treated as the Norm, and families of color (and mixed-race families) consistently treated as the Other, there is no hope of real equality. Inclusion is indescribably important. As I've said before, all social progress really is in the end is making the extraordinary seem ordinary.

These ads are a teaspoon taken to a vast ocean. But, here, we celebrate teaspoons.


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