One could go for ages about the ad’s multiple failures: its attempt to literally commercialize struggle, pain and resistance; the idea that racial harmony can be pop-and-locked into existence; that police forces armed and ready to crack down on protests would like protesters more if they just gave the police soda — too bad Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t think of that! — and so on. But Pepsi’s commercial was much more than just a marketing fail. It represents a pervasive and persistent white liberal fantasy of U.S. protest politics that trivializes the long and oftentimes dangerous work of resistance and protest, and at the same time marginalizes people of color who often are the drivers of such protests, at great costs to their lives and livelihoods. What irks me, as a black woman, the most about Pepsi’s attempt to make Protest the New Black is that it completely excludes black women from any meaningful part of the protest action.
Black women were a core part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It was black women who organized the original Million Woman March in Philadelphia in 1997. #BlackLivesMatter, which has changed U.S. discourse on race and policing, was started by three black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. It was black women who started the #SayHerName campaign to highlight the plight of black women that have been killed and abused by law enforcement. Ninety-four percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton in no small part because we saw the civil rights disaster that would come with the Trump administration.
Yet Pepsi cast Jenner of Kardashian fame as the white center of the ad. (The Kardashians have a history of exploiting black culture and racial bias for profit.) People of color were relegated to side characters: The only black woman Pepsi saw fit to feature was the poor dark-skinned sister who was forced to hold Jenner’s blond wig as she sashayed out to join the protest.
Let me say that again: The black woman’s role in resisting injustice according to Pepsi was to hold Kendall Jenner’s blond weave. Jenner didn’t even look her in the face, reinforcing the notion that black women are just props in a bubbly vision of what it means to confront social injustice in the face of militarized state forces. Even in pulling the ad, Pepsi centered whiteness by apologizing to Jenner, as if she were an unwitting victim in this sham.
To borrow a phrase from the great American wordsmith DJ Khaled: Congratulations Pepsi — you played yourself. That ad deserved to be dragged ’round the world and Twitter-stomped into oblivion. But this goes beyond an ill-thought-out commercial. For centuries the United States has profited from black women’s labor, our style, our pain, our innovation in response to marginalization — often without credit. As the hashtags #BlackWomenAtWork and #MissingDCGirls showed, black women still face erasure and discrimination in the office, and missing black children rarely make national news.
Maybe something good can come out of this. I propose the verb “to Pepsify” should enter into the American lexicon, to be used whenever someone suggests a lazy, sugary approach to ending structural and interpersonal racism. Fighting for justice and racial equality is long and hard, and black women will continue to be at the center of the struggle. We are strong, and we are here, fighting to redeem the soul of what the United States imagines itself to be as a democratic society. America, the revolution will not be Pepsified.