A Whole Foods store in New York City displayed the sidewalk sign shown above advertising a sale on chicken using a drawing of President Barack Obama. One resident told WNBC in NYC “Even if he’s not the president, you’re going to have an African-American promoting the sale of chicken? They can do better than that.” The problem, of course, is that culturally speaking African-Americans have been stereotyped as eating foods like chicken and watermelon; thus some feel that referencing these stereotypes is derogatory, if not racist. Doing so knowingly is particularly problematic.
The store responded to charges that the ad was offensive by saying that their artists regularly use pop culture imagery to promote sales. In this case, the store said, they took it down “once it was brought to our attention by a shopper that it may be perceived as offensive. There was no disrespect meant at all.”
Ethically, the problem is that drawing on stereotypes is inherently disrespectful. Stereotypes are stereotypes because they serve as shorthand for meaning; when we assign them to people we in fact label them with a certain form of meaning, such as all people who are overweight are lazy. When we use stereotypes we aim to communicate that verbal/visual shorthand. So in this case, it’s hard to imagine that they meant no disrespect when they clearly wanted to perpetuate a stereotype.
Why is this bad? Consider what Thomas Aquinas might say about it. He asserted that we are inherently social animals and that our actions must be assessed––at least in part––for the manner in which they effect our relationships with others. Thus, if we knowingly perpetuate stereotypes that we know others might find to be offensive, we are acting wrongly insofar as we are working against the good of society, against the maintaining of positive, respectful human relationships. Taken in that light, the Obama sign can’t be viewed in any other way except as being unethical.
Sources: WNBC, nbcnewyork.com