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February 8, 2010 / JV

Superbowl commercials are signs of the times, pt. 1

I was watching the Superbowl with a racial melange of people when this commercial came on:

The few black folks in the room all paused, and, mostly in confusion wondered if we had heard what we thought we just heard. Thanks to the future and the ability to rewind television, we watched it another 3 or 4 times and learned the baby was saying “milka what,” in response to the comment about someone (presumably her) being a “milkaholic”. We couldn’t get over the fact that “milka what” sounded strangely similar to “nucca what” which is a variation (if you will) of “nigga what”.

While I was discussing the commercial with a friend of mine, she pointed out that when black culture becomes widely accessible through media, lines about (in)appropriate usage and re-appropriation can become blurry. She cited the popularity of the saying “talk to the hand” in the 90s, as well as the use of “daps” and “pounds” to greet others as examples of black culture becoming absorbed by mainstream and popular culture. We talked about the fact that black culture can sometimes be such a part of mainstream culture that it is disconnected from its source and is recognized only as an ambiguous association within a popular culture built upon associations. That is, a particular saying, intonation, or movement that is derived from black culture can seem only vaguely familiar to non-black people, in the sense that they have ingested it in various forms through mass media but perhaps never experienced it within its original context (black spaces). (This can also be true for black people who experience ‘blackness’ as-we-know-it through media). Furthermore, once adopted by media, an expression that once existed within black communities begins to be reshaped, reimagined and given some kind of ‘new’ meaning through the process of being constantly reproduced.

Take, for example, the usage of “milka what” in this commercial. It is the intonation of the phrase, in addition to the body movement (the way she comes in from the side of the screen with a cocked head***) and the fact that “milka what” actually sounds like “nucca what” that makes it a play on something black. Whether that something is black culture “itself” or the representation of it within mass media is a little unclear (cue Art vs Reality). It could in fact be a play on mass media’s portrayal of black-person-with-attitude saying “nigga what,” which would make the commercial a reference to itself (an irony not uncommon in media within the last few years). Or it could be a reference to the use of “nigga what” that actually occurs within black communities. (Although these two things are not necessarily opposed).

It is not uncommon for black culture to be used and referenced in mainstream white culture as a source of entertainment. The auto-tune Bud Light commercial was a hip-hop reference (although auto-tune existed before T-Pain, he is its most accessible representative in our chronically short-term collective memory.) And references to things that were at some point black are not, per se, always problematic. But when is the line crossed?

Perhaps with a baby embodying half the gamut of white media’s black stereotypes and referencing an expression with the n-word in it? Entertainment that relies on racial (mis)conceptions/(mis)understandings/stereotypes cannot exist without a serious commitment to education and anti-racism (READ chappelle show, and the boondocks). Thus, this commercial, while in humor (or something?), is inappropriate because it depends on potentially problematic understandings of how “race” is performed for its appeal and plays on a word that has an extremely violent racial history.

– – – – –

***I realize she’s a baby, and therefore, someone was probably holding her in order for this movement to be achieved. so the question of how much her body movement was choreographed doesn’t necessarily have a clear answer. however, the fact that the commercial as-is made it to TV lets us know the end product was, at the least, satisfactory.



Leave a Comment
  1. n / Feb 15 2010 1:43 pm

    Yes, i’m with you on that. The angle of the smile, the intonation all meant to be read as “black”. The kid even has on black clothes, unlike the others who are in baby pastels. The baby asking the question reminded me of Oprah

    • the black scientist / Feb 15 2010 3:17 pm

      good point that the baby’s wearing black. i mean, really they wanted it to be a black baby, but they knew that’d be pushing it a little too far. do you think you being reminded of oprah has anything to do with the baby’s hair? something about the baby’s hair is giving me oprah.

  2. Tim / Feb 24 2010 3:29 pm

    Hi — I’m a white male who hangs out with a bunch of black friends in an urban church. We’ve watched the Boondocks on Sunday mornings together, and I don’t know when to laugh or cry, especially white, especially when the “dirty laundry” of the African American community is left out to dry before me. Thanks for your thoughtful blog posts, sir. Keep up the good work.

  3. latra / Mar 9 2010 10:47 pm

    or, apparently, it has nothing to do with Black culture and everything to do with lilo…


    • the black scientist / Mar 22 2010 10:21 am

      wow…. she can’t be serious?

  4. Dawn / May 1 2010 5:39 pm

    Wow. I never even thought of that (I am a white woman) when I saw that commercial. Now that you point those subtleties out, it is glaringly obvious that this is their true intention. Very interesting and unfortunate.


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