Why Our Response to Coke’s “America the Beautiful” Matters

My dad was 8 years old in 1956. That’s the same year he remembers watching his dad invite Mrs. Rhodes, the neighbor who’d knocked on their door in Seattle, paper and pen in hand, to get the hell off his property.

Mrs. Rhodes, it turns out, was the mastermind behind a petition to keep a Japanese American family from buying a house in the new development on the next street, a kind of discrimination still protected by law in many places in 1956 America.

As a Navy veteran who fought in the Pacific just over a decade earlier — who kept vigil against the Japanese military on dark nights in a huge ocean — my grandfather could have taken the popular cultural position of his day and rejected the family outright.

But he didn’t.

My grandfather didn’t sign the petition.

And it’s not because he knew the family.

He just knew of them.

He knew the father was a fellow veteran.

He knew the family wanted to live in the neighborhood.

And that was more than enough.

And so he worked behind the scenes and in a way I doubt the family ever knew to champion them. To help them be free to live their lives next to his. Which is, I believe, America at its best.

So when Mrs. Rhodes bustled up to the front door that day, armed with a petition and a speech, my grandfather interrupted her. “I did not fight in the Pacific during WWII,” he said, “so a bigot like you could stand on my front porch and attempt to deny an American citizen and fellow veteran the opportunity to buy a home for himself and his family. Now get off my property before I have you thrown off.”

And he said it while my dad watched. All 8 years of him, spindly-limbed and wide-eyed, brain chugging away at the implications of his dad addressing Mrs. Rhodes that way.

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On Saturday, I curled my daughter’s hair for Homecoming, and she dressed in her $20 find from Ross Dress for Less, altered by her grandmother to fit, with borrowed shoes and her mama’s pearls and a bright smile and anticipation.

On Saturday, I hugged my daughter’s boyfriend, and he whispered thank you as we set out to take pictures.

On Saturday, I thought about the strange tides and currents that bring a little boy from a terrible war in Sierra Leone to a quiet town in rural Oregon to grow into a young man to meet a young woman who was born in Vietnam and to ask her to dance.

And on Saturday, I thought, what a strange and sensational life, this one we all have that is blended from the bits that are beautiful and the bits that are broken.

Then on Sunday, Coca Cola showed this ad during the Superbowl:

And on Sunday, there was an outcry against singing America the Beautiful in languages other than English.

Listen. Here’s why our reaction to Sunday’s Coke commercial matters. Here’s why it makes a difference what we say today… and 58 years from today.

We say little things. On Facebook. To our friends. To our family. In comments sections and out loud and in quiet and behind closed doors. And our children hear us. All of those places. They hear and they witness and they follow our lead. And 58 years later, they will remember. They will remember and it will shape their lives. They will remember who we welcomed and who we shunned. Who we embraced and who we discarded. And they will remember whether we thought it was OK to love America the Beautiful in the languages we bring with us. Whether it’s OK to express ourselves as ourselves. As Vietnamese and Sierra Leonean. As Japanese and Irish. As Guatemalan and Haitian. Or whether we must pretend to be what we’re not until we become it – bland, homogeneous, uniform, standardized.

The detractors of the Coke commercial are right. Our culture is at stake.

Now, adoption is not easy. Either of children or of a country or of a new way of thinking. It’s complex and nuanced and heart rending, full of deep losses and great gains. It takes us apart and then it remakes us into people who are a mix of who we were then and who we are now. It is tragic and triumphant, these threads of stories snipped and grafted and respun. There is very little that is easy about blending nations and embracing other cultures and championing the freedom of people who look and sound different than what we are accustomed to.

But I will tell you what.

It is worth it.

And we can be America the Beautiful.

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P.S. If you want to watch full-length versions of America the Beautiful in all 8 languages featured in the ad, Coca Cola has provided them here: in EnglishHindiTagalogSpanishSenegalese-French, HebrewMandarin, and Keres. And behind the scenes, which is my favorite. Gorgeous.

P.P.S. My daughter’s a weirdo.

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Like her mama.

………

So. What did I miss? What are your thoughts about Coke’s America the Beautiful ad?

 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
77 comments
  1. Honestly, I don’t really think it’s all that terrible that some immigrants don’t learn English. Learning a new language can be very difficult, especially if you are older. I don’t think your ability or inability to be multi-lingual should be a factor in whether you can better your life. The only reason someone should be barred from moving to America is a criminal record, in my opinion. Yeah, people want to come to our country. They’re willing to risk death to do it. Because it’s BETTER here. And all the immigrants I know are working to KEEP it better. Because that’s WHY they came here. Not speaking English is a big handicap. One they usually try to fix. But sometimes, it’s not so easy. Punishing them, saying they can’t be Americans, that’s cruel and wrong. Especially over something so silly as “our culture.” Seriously, we don’t HAVE just one culture in America. We’ve got Amish, Hipsters, Boston Blue-bloods, Rednecks…..I think we’ve shown that it’s entirely possible for all these cultures to co-exist reasonably peacefully. So I’m fine with inviting a few more to join us here in this great land. All I ask is that they bring all their awesome recipes with them, because I think we can all agree, food is good.

  2. Honestly, when I saw the commercial I was wondering why they did it. For the publicity? To get people talking? To get people arguing? To sell soda? (No.) So why? The purpose of the commercial was what got me thinking.

    Then I started to read what others were saying. Opinions were all over the place. Wow. So many opinions and feelings. And I think it’s important that we take the time to learn why people think what they think. Their history is what defines their opinions.

    Then I read this blog post, and one sentence was all I needed to know where I stand on this ‘issue’: “On Saturday, I thought about the strange tides and currents that bring a little boy from a terrible war in Sierra Leone to a quiet town in rural Oregon to grow into a young man to meet a young woman who was born in Vietnam and to ask her to dance.”

    That right there was all I needed to remember what America is all about, and what America’s future is all about. And if it takes a silly (or not so silly) soda commercial to remind me of this, then so be it.

  3. Canada and America are unique in the world, in that we are the most culturally diverse. We have a unique opportunity in history to celebrate each other’s uniqueness and simultaneously celebrate our one-ness, in each country.

    I’ve traveled a fair amount, and have not yet found two countries like ours, that are as racially and culturally diverse and yet unified.

    We’ve made some major mistakes in Canada, and you have in America also; it is also true that we have a long, long way to go. BUT we have a good head start on acceptance and diversity, worldwide.

    Here’s to love, winning.

  4. 99 percent of everyone who lives here came from somewhere else, somewhere along the line. The beauty of our culture is that it’s a blend of many cultures, and we have the freedom to express ourselves how we choose. I thought the message of the Coke commercial was wonderful.

  5. The reaction at the Superbowl party that I attended was silence, and then someone said, “We love you all, and now we’ll kill you all with sugar.”

    1. Ha! And, YES! I hope Adam (commenter below) sees this. THIS is a very valid criticism of Coke.

  6. I don’t know. What is the thesis if this article? I think you have some good points, but the basic premise put forth sounds like: Voicing an opinion to the contrary of multiculturalism in a public sphere might make my kids turn out to be bigots. Ok.So coke, a multinational company that spreads diabetes posts a feel good commercial because they want people to think that they sell happiness and hope rather than sugar water in a can. I can’t criticize that? That doesn’t seem cynical to you? Like if I could give the world a coke is a real solution for peace? Ok. I hope my kids grow up to be contrarians with half original ideas.

    1. “But the basic premise put forth sounds like: Voicing an opinion to the contrary of multiculturalism in a public sphere might make my kids turn out to be bigots.”

      Yes, Adam, that’s what I’m saying. <-- I realize that may have sounded sarcastic on my part. It wasn't sarcastic. I really am saying that voicing an opinion that's contrary to accepting multiculturalism in any sphere might make your kids turn out to be bigots. I think rejecting multiculturalism does, in fact, lead to bigotry. Also, I absolutely think criticizing Coke for using feel-good tactics to sell sugar and chemicals in a nation struggling with diabetes and obesity and other health-related issues is valid. That's an important thing to teach our kids - how to be wary of what we're being "sold." I think that can be done quite easily without rejecting the beautiful multiculturalism shown in this commercial.

  7. Bravo Beth and CocaCola! I think that there are a lot of crabby old white men in this country that are just starting to see that while they were busy finding more and more things to be against in this country, the whole country has changed right before them and without them. AND they are “pissed-off”!

    All I can say to them is “Get over it!” That train has left the station and it’s a one-way trip to a more equitable, open society, which is the way it should be. They have forgotten that Coke taught “the world to sing in perfect harmony” back in the 1970’s? AntLinne

  8. After reading people’s reaction to this commercial, I found myself swept up in outrage. Thank you for expressing this so beautifully and full of love and grace, not reacting in anger. I have been humbled, and I am very thankful for that.

  9. The comments on here reflect ignorance just the same as the article does. Ignorance of the fact that this is just a ploy being played out by hired Sociologists hired by our government. This plays right into their plans for globalization. Don’t believe me? Pick up the book “Sociology” by Richard T. Schaefer and read about it. And read about how sociologists are hired by the government, run tons of surveys that tell the government how to get people to do whatever they want, read about how they use the answers you give on surveys to manipulate people to move toward the future they envision. The government isn’t the only entity that manipulates through the use of surveys, businesses do also. More important is that everyone keeps spewing out regurgitated garbage that they were programmed to say. America has a language. The language here is English. Why is that so hard to understand? Our taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay extra so that kids can be taught in any language but English as a first language. They go to school, they should learn our ways. Our culture. Our values. This isn’t a punishment to do so, I happen to think America is a pretty great place. If their country was so wonderful, they wouldn’t be moving here. As a visitor, it is acceptable for someone not to speak the language, as a resident it is unacceptable.

    1. Point taken. I happen to agree that if one becomes a resident/citizen you should learn English. You mentioned that “they should learn our way, culture, values…but have you asked yourself whose culture, whose values? America’s make-up 100 years ago is different than now. It truly is a huge melting pot. This is what makes America great and unique.

  10. the freedom to speak and choose is the minimum… the choice to write intelligent and very eloquent words is admirable and caring enough to speak from the heart with guts and selflessness is exceptional. Great read, Thank You for lifting people up rather than diminishing them. Those who speak ill of a company that puts their profits on the line to say something important to many people is not just a company but a Culture built with Integrity. Surely an American ideology, of coarse born in the hearts of humanity, the same that came to discover America from Foreign lands.

  11. I think it would have been much more beautiful to have heard these people singing the best they could in English, the De Facto national language of the U.S. That would have shown commitment and love for their new country as well as an admirable amount of discipline.
    The United States is, when compared to the rest of the world, exceptionally accommodating to people off all races and ethnicities. Personally, I find it a bit exhausting constantly being preached to by people who think they own the moral high ground because of the color of their skin or their recent immigration status. Just exactly who are you referring to as, “bland, homogenous, uniform, standardized?”
    It is not racist to believe that Americans should learn English or that certain songs were intended to be sung in English. I do believe too much is being made of this on both sides. So do me a favor and come down off your PC crucifix and join us common people black, brown, red, yellow and even us bland, homogenous, standardized white ones.

    1. I agree that when in this country, speaking English is a good thing. But that wasn’t the point of the commercial.

      You see, what makes America beautiful is the people, of all backgrounds. And that background happens to be, unless you are American Indian, from another country. America is the place where people come to, and have been coming to, since the 1400’s. Those people did not speak English, but what makes our country great is that we have certain inalienable rights that other country’s do not. It’s being able to call America your home, in what ever language you speak,and embracing the beauty of our land and its freedoms, and (run on sentence, I know) being able to sing of it in your native tongue shows far more respect than any other way.
      There is no PC crucifix that needs to be taken care of, just your own. For speaking and writing like that reveals more of you than anything else.
      America is beautiful, and it was just a coke commercial. Americans need to simmer down a bit on always knee-jerking to a response. It’s goofy. There are far more important things to be concerned with.

      1. I find it odd that you claim to love America and yet are so willing to yield to the loss of our culture. The commercial represents what is happening in America. It is another step toward globalization. It is a big company manipulating the American people into acceptance of the loss of their own culture. As a visitor it is perfectly acceptable to not speak our language. As a resident it is not. What next? Our national anthem should be sang in twenty different languages so that the lazy immigrants don’t have to learn any English? Give me a break, I am Native American. I am more aware than most others of the fact that English wasn’t spoken here. But what does that tell you? History has a funny way of repeating itself. Whites moved into my country, pretended to want to work with us, made treaties that later proved to be total and utter bs. In the end, they slid in under real Americans radar, changed the language and the culture. Are you really so naïve to believe it couldn’t and isn’t happening again?

        1. What our culture is and isn’t is entirely up to debate. This country has spoken many languages and the culture has varied wildly over the years and in region. People have been coming to this country speaking in different languages and going to different churches (or none at all) and eating different foods and having different customs for as long as this country has been around. And even before that.

          So which culture, exactly, are we going for? Because for as long as this country has been a country, we have been mixing cultures and morphing them together. And we are still doing it. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

          The bad thing comes when you tell everyone that they have to morph into your culture and your culture only. That is where the issues rise from.

          Just because you speak another language and sing in another language does not mean you can’t speak English.

          1. What language was the Declaration of Independence written in? The Constitution? Every law that has ever been passed by Congress? Every decision ever handed down by the Supreme Court? Many languages have been spoken in cultural pockets here and there…ah I’m getting tired of trying to communicate with morons that just want to write anything even if what they are writing is just ignorant at it’s very core. It’s a waste of my time.

        2. You are aware that “America the Beautiful” isn’t the national anthem, aren’t you?

          Most of “my people” have been here since the 1600s – except for the branch that were indigenous people. I think diversity is beautiful and uplifting. If we can’t accept different languages, how can we accept any differences? Like different skin color, different religions, different abilities. When we try to separate people from their ethnic identity, we are trying to eliminate their family and their history. As a native American, you, of all people, should realize that.

          1. Cheryle,

            Ha! My sentiments exactly, Star Spangled Banner? Anyone? Anyone?

        3. Annette,

          Making generalizations about any one person based off your limited life’s experience, and voiding out any other’s experience because it isn’t yours, does not then make your experience the only one that ever happened.
          You totally missed the point of what I was saying.
          SO saying I don’t love America because “I am ok with us losing our culture”… ok… go:
          Loss of culture?
          Our country is rich with culture. Our country is what it is today BECAUSE of every culture that has been willing to join it. Culture? What defines this? Take sociology 101 at any college and you will find the answer to that. By knowing the definition to the word you use, you will find that you are not using it properly. Having culture, by definition, is the very epitome of the commercial.
          Americans embrace who we are, not because of someone telling us who we are, but because we have a country founded on being free to express ourselves and live our lives as set in our Constitution.

          I grew up in a foreign country, and returning to the US was an eye opener.
          I love this country, dearly.
          I love that there are men and women fighting and giving their lives, so that we can sing a silly song about America the Beautiful and then fight about how we are “supposed” to sing it.

          (Kind of puts it into perspective, huh?)

          There are more things in this world to be upset about. The singing of a song is not one of them.
          I get that people are angry, but why so much anger?

          We are a country of individuals, and learning, respectfully to live together is a process. When this stops, that is when people should get angry.

    2. “i think…”

      your opinion matters and

      ” people do not care how much you know, or what you think until they know how much you care. ”

      again great response… how is it that this article and commercial provokes such hatred of anyone but yourself?

      how does commitment and discipline matter in to a country that throws away all that is not ” beautiful ” This is the realm of creating art or advertising. It is a caring gesture shot on film by a company, its turned inward because someone thinks it is really about immigration. It is about making the brand stick and raising a profit all the while building a positive, negative . They do not care about negative feedback because it is getting the name out there again. Wow, we used to have these commercials all the time… even with cigarettes and booze being advertised. Now the sensitivity of the average man or woman is like we wear our nervous system on the outside. Can’t use different races to advertise cant have just a white male. Accept the challenge of dropping your conviction and judgement. Look at yourself in the mirror, is it what you dreamed it would be. Then why would anyone believe it really matters what, ” i think “

  12. I loved the ad and I love your response. We are the great melting pot and our diversity is our strength.

  13. I love your grandfather. I loved the commercial. I don’t believe for a moment that Coke didn’t expect a racist backlash. The cynical part of my brain says it was part of the plan, because the backlash and the response to it are keeping their name in the news.

    I guess it says something about my friends that on facebook I’ve only seen
    1. Positive response to the ad
    2. Anger at the racist backlash along the lines can’t these idiots grow up and see this diversity is America. or
    3. Complete puzzlement from family in other countries.

    1. all Americans from what ever nationality are just that. In America a person regardless of religion, skin color, political beliefs is free to think and to worship god or not as each individual sees fit what your not allowed to do is force other folk to believe as you do sadly our laws also protect bigots, anti-Semites, neo Nazis, klu kluxers and the supremacist of non white movements as well. My family has served this nation since it broke away from being subject to the English crown several have died in that service each individual is free to believe, worship or not as they see fit many people are still prejudiced against roman Catholics even though they have never attended a mass in there lives I studied the religions of ths world and found 85% of what they all teach is the same follishly we hate and kill each other over the less than 15% that we disagree about

  14. Beautiful article! Beautiful daughter and date! And I liked the Coke commercial.

  15. I was favorably impressed with the Coke ad……and also with your article. Well written and very expressive. I believe that this says it all….America is the “melting pot” we have many nationalities that arrive and live here. Why shouldn’t we embrace all the cultures that we find in our wonderful country? Our ancestors had to travel here too. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if bigotry wasn’t present, nor welcomed, at all??

  16. When I saw that ad, I thought, “Wow, there are some narrow, bigoted heads exploding right now. Let ’em blow.” It had diverse languages, brown skin and a gay couple. Meanwhile, your beautiful Vietnamese girl and her beautiful Sierra Leonean boy are dancing, meanwhile my girls play that Supergirl and her bride get married without a second thought and my seven year old asks me, with great concern, if New Mexico “got the law” that lets everyone get married if they want to. The same child said, during the last presidential cycle, after seeing part of a debate, “Well, I mean, Obama LOOKS more like a president.” These are the hearts and minds of the future. May they be a force to be reckoned with.

  17. That commercial, in my opinion, was the best one of the Super Bowl. It expressed to me what America is all about–or should be about. I was shocked when I looked at FB and saw how differently it had been seen and received by so many people. I am sad that so many of our people are so “vanilla”.

    And, Beth, your daughter and her date are beautiful together. I hope they had a really nice evening.

  18. Well said! Thank you!

  19. Well said. I married a Japanese American and the first I had ever even heard of Japanese internment camps was at a family dinner after I’d married into the family. I also learned of the horrible ways my father in law was treated in the midwest in the years following the war and why he refuses to call himself Japanese. He is simply an American. (Their family story is shared on my blog under either homeschool or family if you’re interested)

    1. Sad to say but there are also dark periods in American history or human history at that. The point is to learn and understand and so we are not bound to repeat them. However, it takes conscious effort and open-mindedness.

  20. I liked it. I liked the whole article, too. Will we ever stop the “outrage industry” that’s so unfortunately growing in this country and the world?

  21. Your daughter is Beautiful. Being wierd is better than boring!

  22. I loved the commercial. It paints a beautiful picture of acceptance and makes you feel that other countries might accept us also. Even though you hear so much about how we (USA) don’t have a great international reputation.

  23. I’m happy I took the time to read your article. The internet has become a secret and safe haven for all manner of bigots. I sometimes tire of writing my critiques of their illogical, diabolical and incoherent posts. You summarized my sentiments exactly. Thanks.

  24. So well put, Thank you!

  25. Goosebumps. Thank you. I could not have written about this topic with such grace. I hope it’s okay that I’m sharing this with everyone I know.

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