In February there was a tremendous uproar about the racism and classism inherent in an advertisement run by Groupon during the Super Bowl, in which the plight of Tibetan people was minimized by saying they make “an amazing fish curry.” Yet after searching the Internet to determine if there has been any negative reaction to a similarly racist advertisement sponsored by La Quinta Inns depicting the rates being so good that taking advantage of them it would be like selling ice cubes to Eskimos, I found nothing.
First let me share the reasons why this advertisement is offensive and racist. The advertisement depicts the Inuit (the correct term, meaning “the true people,” for Eskimo is a derogatory term that means “dog eater” and was used to insult the Inuit) in thick furs and anoraks, purchasing ice cubes from a slick white salesman. The advertisement is offensive because it depicts Inuit as stereotypes, and not as human beings. It is offensive because the ad agency didn’t take the time to learn the proper term for the Inuit, and instead used the slur Eskimo. People have the right to call themselves by the names they prefer, and when a dominant culture ignores those preferences, they are de facto telling that culture that it does not matter. And finally, the advertisement is offensive because it implies that an unfair and unethical business deal that takes advantage of a traditional people for commercial gain, as happened again and again throughout American history, is acceptable. In summary, what this advertisement says to first peoples is that the business community and advertising industry continues to disregard us because we do not matter; we are unimportant.
This kind of narrative in which Native people are objects of ridicule and objectification has a long history, tracing back to Victorian times, in which the theory of evolution proffered by Charles Darwin was molded to fit the British empire’s justification for colonization in a convenient social theory called “survival of the fittest.” The Empire fed its growth with the raw goods and human labor from the countries it colonized, using the faux-scientific theory and misplaced moral rectitude, that it had a moral duty to “civilize” the savage. This very notion is embodied in a quote by Cecil Rhodes, the colonialist and English-born businessman who founded the DeBeers diamond company and the state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), who said, “We happen to be the best people in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better for humanity.”
The cultural arrogance embodied in Rhodes and his statement lives on today, and is what has allowed Anglo culture to prevail even when it has been immoral and dead wrong: in its treatment and attempts to assimilate or eradicate Native people in America, Australia, and Canada; when colonizing Africa and Asia; and when attempting throughout history to assimilate Native peoples.
In the post-racial society that President Obama’s election was alleged to have ushered in, it’s both sad and offensive to see that the racism and cultural superiority that thrived during Victorian times is still alive and well. There have been too many instances of racism like that which appeared in this La Quinta advertisement. It appears that there are still those that would still seek to implement a single civilization through the tools of making people seem insignificant through humiliation and more. This is unacceptable for Native people, and it should be unacceptable for all people who espouse equality and justice.
A call to La Quinta’s public relations office only made matters worse. The person answering the phone said that humor is a key part of the campaign, and that the corporation believes the advertisement to be funny. Perhaps the agency that created the advertisement and La Quinta Inns believes racist jokes about Natives are funny and fine to make because no one will respond, or because first peoples are powerless without the political clout or numbers to wage an effective boycott against La Quinta. Yet it is not funny, and everyone in America should be offended, if only because the message in the commercial reflects on the horrible mistreatment of American Indian and Alaskan Natives suffered, while giving all in America a place to call home.