Sometime in 1978 on a fuzzy color television, I saw a rainbow of people in a field of soft sunlight, holding bottles of Coke, singing, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” My five-year old self was delighted to see different colors of people singing together in perfect harmony, some people who looked like me. I felt warm every time I saw it on television and often sang along. The commercial and the sentiment may seem too sweet and a bit over-the-top, but I enjoyed the diversity and the harmony. What a concept.
Fast forward to Super Bowl Sunday 2014. Another Coke commercial hits the air encouraging diversity and harmony. This time, it features images of different Americans, black, white, gay, straight, Indian, Native American, Hispanic, Asian, any group of American you can think of, and girls with ethereal voices singing “America the Beautiful” in their native languages. English. Spanish. Tagalog. Mandarin. Hindi. Hebrew. Keres. Senegalese-French. Arabic . I enjoyed it and, personally, I felt it was tastefully done. The same warm feeling I experienced when I was five years old spread through my body. Two different commercials almost 40 years apart with the same message, but delivered a little differently. Diversity and harmony. Again, what a concept.
The hate tweets began immediately. I wish I could say I was surprised.
People were so offended “America the Beautiful” was sung in languages other than English. Some mistook the song as America’s National Anthem, which is actually, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Some people ordered the song be sung in America’s “official language,” which is also incorrect. America doesn’t have an official language. Twitter campaigns were started: #SpeakAmerican, #BoycottCoke. Coca-Cola responded and said the ad “provides a snapshot of the real lives of Americans representing diverse ethnicities, religions, races and families, all found in the United States.” Again, I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn’t. That doesn’t make it hurt any less.
One of the lofty, aspirational goals of this commercial was to point out our unity through our differences. America is a country of immigrants. Our brutal history tells us the only indigenous people in this country are Native Americans. It is what makes America-AMERICA. Only in America can a Native-Mexican American woman from Aberdeen, Washington and African-American man from Daytona Beach, Florida meet in West Haven, Connecticut and have the baby that would grow up to write this blog for all of you. America the Beautiful, indeed.
But we are also ugly. Our history tells us this every single day through racial inequalities. Our inequalities show their faces in the modern day trials of Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman, two white men admitting to but not convicted of killing black teenage boys. These are high-profile criminal cases. The history runs long and wide and cuts deep. But nowhere is racial inequality more evident than in health care.
Language barriers, stigmas, access to health care, and many more factors play into health inequities. As the documentary “Place Matters” showed us, even our zip code plays into our health inequities. A 2003 National Institutes of Health study found in emergency rooms, black people with the same level of pain as white people were three times less likely to receive pain medications. In our own state, we struggle with the multicultural implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Although we are exceeding our enrollment goal, the Spanish version of the Access Health CT website will not be functional until the beginning of March. The deadline to enroll is March 31st. How is this equitable?
I want to reach out to those who opposed to this commercial, who ordered these beautiful girls to speak “American” and ask them what “American” means to them. What is it about this rich history that angers you? How can you reject the very thing that makes you American?
USA Today interviewed the girls who sang in the Coke Super Bowl commercial. Naya, who sang in Arabic, said, “America is one union, but with a mix of cultures. And it doesn’t matter who you are, we should always be friendly to each other, no matter what difference you have.”
Let us all try to apply this to our daily American lives.