Racist Commercials?

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WATCH THE COMMERCIAL HERE

The 2011 commercial for the German Kytta-Salbe, an all-natural pain-relieving ointment, follows the exploitative, misguided, Eurocentric representation of a middle-aged Native-American man’s path through nature, facing obstacles such as rocks to be climbed and river trails to be passed over. A female narrator declares the significance and healing powers of nature, specifically in counteracting physical discomfort. In seeming pain from climbing the rocks and following an interjected explanation by the narrating woman regarding Kytta-Salbe’s natural healing powers, the man declares that a Native-American does not acknowledge pain1, implying his frequent use of the Kytta-Salbe helping him in staying true to that identity. Having described it as an exploitative, misguided, Eurocentric representation, or rather misrepresentation of Native-American culture, I will now have to attempt to prove it.

The issue of representation is covered extensively in postcolonial discourse analysis. More than anything, perhaps, a postcolonial perspective presupposes the understanding that beyond investigation of what we see and what we don’t see, exists a space of “mediations which intervene between reality and representation” (Stam & Spence, 111). This space is ridden with thought structures which are not only psychologically engrained in the individual but also embedded in social behavior, therefore having the cyclic potential to perpetuate it as well. However, it can be assumed that many German people would watch the commercial without questioning its cultural significance regarding a past of colonization or its psychological and social impact regarding a present of lasting mental and social effects. The colonial intertext connected to the Kytta-commercial is a vast history of stripping Native Americans of mental and physical resources, as defined by Stam & Spence as a common signifier of “colonial image making” (110). The twisting and blatant denial of colonial history and the fact that Native American culture has largely been wiped out by, first and foremost, colonial powers, but also more recently, self-serving political agendas and neglectful institutions, as well as the mental colonization of culture, in and outside of America, regarding the silenced state of Native American culture makes for a complete exploitation of stereotypes in the case of the Kytta-Salbe commercial. It is a fiction based on the colonial machinery of thought, which becomes apparent when taking one close look at the man’s dulled-down and modernized, supposedly Native American appearance, which is reduced to the Eurocentric vision of what is handsome and appropriate about Native American culture, such as long hair, intricate jewelry, masculine facial features and a strong, fit physical appearance, which goes along perfectly with the quote used to ‘sell’ Kytta-Salbe. Contrary to much of the “paradigmatic filmic encounters of whites and Indians in the western” (Stam & Spence, 111) including mostly “images of encirclement” (111), the spectator is positioned here on a level of friendship and understanding. The modernized and westernized Native American seems relatable in appearance and language. This is where the aspect of a mediation between reality and representation is most distorted. The apologist German standard of colorblindness in the defeating of racial stereotypes has led to much of the positive stereotyping common in media and culture, in general. The danger of positive stereotyping is its potential erasure of responsibility from the mind of the spectator leading to an ignorance of the effects of colonialization altogether, therefore making it harmful to both the oppressed and the oppressor, as described by Stam & Spence: “We should be equally suspicious of a naïve integrationism which simply inserts new heroes and heroines, this time drawn from the ranks of the oppressed, into the old functional roles that were themselves oppressive, much as colonialism invited a few assimilated ‘natives’ to join the club of the ‘elite’…” (110)

The westernized appearance, the well-spoken-ness and the relatability of the Native American, and his service to the creators of Kytta-Salbe as spokesman for ‘all-things-natural’ in medicine (an image obviously tied to Native American culture, while completely ignoring the fact that all of that has been systematically taken from Native American people by colonial powers) makes for a shocking misrepresentation of Native Americans while doing extremely well in outlining a European ignorance toward the issue of stereotyping. To briefly outline the dangers of positive stereotyping, here, the romanticization (and simultaneous disregard of the struggles) of Native American culture as well as the commercial exploitation of sociallyengrained thought patterns, I will now draw on Edward Said and Homi Bhaba to explore the underlying mental processes behind it. Said’s description of the relationship between the Orient and the Occident as “a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony […]” (Said 2006, 26) acknowledges the act of distortion and assimilation of images of the Orient as an imbalance of power, or as he calls it “positional superiority”(26), as both consciously utilized as well as engrained in subconscious processes, but its overarching danger being a “distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts” and well as a “will or intention to understand, […] manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different world” (Said 2006, 26). Homi Bhaba extends upon Said’s concept by putting into focus the synchronic aspects of this power imbalance by exploring the ambivalence in regards to the formulation of a “reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same but not quite”, with his concept of mimicry (Bhaba 1994, 122), which signifies the colonial assertion and exercise of power while simultaneously claiming the right to assimilate aspects of the Other’s culture, which are held to be worthy of such assimilation. In the case of the Kytta-Salbe commercial, the formulation of Self and Other as on even terms and friendly, hides within it a position of superiority while simultaneously establishing Western supremacy and the inherit authority to judge and strip Native American culture of all that is unacceptable by Western society, leaving only the Europeanized version of Native American culture, which serves to entertain.

Works Cited

  • Bhaba, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man.” The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. 94-120, 121-131.
  • Said, Edward W. “Orientalism.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin. London and New York: Routledge, 2006, 24-27.
  • Stam, Robert and Louise Spence. “Colonialism, Racism and Representation.” The PostColonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin. London and New York: Routledge, 2006, 109-112.

Internet Sources

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About AnekaB

Literature, Philosophy, Culture
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