Ashton Kuctcher in Brownface: Why Popchips Ad Isn't OK

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | Popchips recently pulled its ad featuring Ashton Kutcher as a sort-of spoof of a Bollywood actor in response to claims of racism. In the ad, Kutcher dons brown make-up, a fake "Indian" accent, and, in what might be the worst of the get-up, a prosthetic nose and fake moustache. He prances. He sits cross-legged.

He appears ridiculous.

And therein lies the difference between "doing a character" and caricature. A character is a person, not a hodgepodge of stereotypes; a character takes a collection of truths and exaggerates.

A caricature mocks.

It is incredible that in the year 2012, we have to talk about the act of darkening the color of your skin and calling it comedy. That brownface -- as opposed to blackface -- doesn't have the same lengthy history in this country should be immaterial. Frankly, everyone should know better by now.

Blackface was one of the staples in the racism arsenal for more than a century, a handy tool used to dehumanize African-Americans. It depicted people as something less than people, as dim-witted jesters seeking only to "serve" by entertaining.

Lightening the shade of makeup doesn't actually alter the meaning behind putting it on in the first place. Granted, I do not, having seen a part of the retracted ad, understand the connection between it and a potato chip brand I guess I'll no longer be buying, but the ad was still, at its heart, an attempt to turn an entire group into clowns based on an accent, a fake nose, a fake moustache and some ridiculous dance.

Maybe we've grown too complacent about racism. Maybe, with too many people thinking they are above racism, immune to it, we've rebounded to a more backward place. Jezebel described this phenomenon as "hipster racism," or racism to show how not-racist you are.

Well, I have news for you. We're racist. If you don't think you have work to do, you are fooling yourself. I do not exclude myself from this statement. It takes vigilance about what you will and will not accept, it takes paying attention to the eyebrow that raises on its own, it takes filtering the messages we hear every day, loudly and nearly silently, to make sure our own thoughts are aligned with our true beliefs.

Take, for example, a lawsuit filed against Google in France, asserting that the search engine's auto-complete feature is anti-Semitic, as it adds information about whether a search subject is Jewish even if it isn't prompted to do so. In researching this article, I got as far as typing "Why black" for my query on blackface, when Google offered me such gems as "Why black people are so rude," and "Why black people can't swim." There are similar posts online with queries involving Asian people; the question "Why is Google," fills itself in with "so racist."

As Google points out in its response to the French lawsuit, reports PC Magazine, the auto-complete works using an algorithm based on the terms people use to search. Google does not use a person, for example, to figure out where you're going with your question. Instead, they used their terrifyingly extensive data stash mined from real searches.

In other words, garbage in, garbage out.

I'm glad that Popchips pulled their "Indian" Kutcher ad. I'm glad they issued an apology. But one question remains.

Why did they make the ad in the first place?

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