By now almost everyone in the country has seen the (in)famous multilingual Coke commercial that ran during the Super Bowl a few weeks ago. The images of a multicultural America appearing alongside a multilingual rendition of “American the Beautiful” caused quite a stir on social media. Conservatives took to twitter in a pouring of outcry against Coke while liberals quickly jumped to Cokes defense and accused conservatives of ignorance and racism.
But what exactly are liberals celebrating here? There is nothing inherently progressive about multilingualism or multilingual language policies. Indeed, many colonial governments saw the promotion of mother tongue education as the most efficient way of molding colonial subjects into an acceptance of White supremacy and imperialism. Similarly, Stalin advocated a policy of multilingualism where citizen received indoctrination in Stalinist ideologies in their mother tongue. These two examples show that multilingualism in and of itself can be promoted as a tool of oppression just as equally as it can be used as a tool of empowerment.
I am not suggesting that the new Coke commercial’s promotion of multilingualism is identical to the multilingual language policies of colonial governments or Stalinist Russia. Yet, it serves a similar function. It promotes multilingualism in ways that produce governable subjects for our current socio-historical context. Specifically, it is promoting a form of multilingualism aligned with neoliberalism–a process that entails the corporatization and commodification of people and society.
Specifically, the multilingual Coke commercial is a great example of neoliberal multiculturalism. Neoliberal multiculturalism appropriates the anti-racist and anti-imperialist discourses of political struggles of the 1960s in the United States and worldwide in ways that are aligned with corporate profits. For example, in the 1960s bilingual education in the US emerged from Latino community demands for self-determination and offered a critique of the white supremacist imposed monolingualism of American public schools. Neoliberal multiculturalism moves calls for bilingual education away from the political struggles of people of color toward programs that provide students skills that they can use to find well-paying corporate jobs.
Coke was a pioneer in marketing neoliberal multiculturalism with its (in)famous mountaintop commercial. No doubt at the time the commercial felt like social progress. A multinational corporation was putting its weight behind the countercultural movement of the US and support for multiculturalism and peace worldwide. Yet, this commercial reduced the political struggles of the 1960s into a generic call for the world to unite in perfect harmony while drinking a Coke. This was a far cry from the calls from the anti-imperial, anti-racist, and anti-poverty demands of 1960s grassroots movements.
This new commercial marks an important shift in neoliberal multiculturalism. In the mountaintop commercial it was only possible to sing in perfect harmony in English. The new commercial allows for this perfect harmony to emerge multilingually. Again, this may feel like social progress. A multinational corporation is putting its weight behind multilingualism in the United States and worldwide. Yet, as with the mountaintop commercial, this commercial reduces the political struggles around multilingualism to a generic call for US nationalism while drinking a Coke.
The power of neoliberal multiculturalism is that it is able to pass itself off as anti-racist and socially transformative. White liberals can stand on their soapbox and call conservatives racist while continuing to ignore the vast racial inequalities that exist in US society and around the world. Indeed, it makes it possible for white liberals to condemn racism while continuing to profit from a racist system. They will continue to send their children to well-funded schools in segregated and gentrifying areas. Latinos and other language minoritized students at best become tools to help their children become bilingual and at worse remain relegated to underfunded segregated schools that ignore their bilingualism.
To be clear, I am not saying that white liberals should not want to send their children to high quality schools nor am I saying that they should not want their children to be bilingual. What I am saying is that neoliberal multiculturalism becomes a distraction from the institutional racism that continues to plague US society. It may provide a feel good moment where liberals can feel morally superior to conservatives but it does little to address social inequality. On the contrary, by distracting from the root cases of racial disparities, it may actually increase social inequality.
Though this post may feel pessimistic, I am actually am optimist at heart. I am optimistic that we can still creat socially transformative forms of multilingualism. I also continue to believe in the power of anti-racist and anti-oppressive bilingual education programs in being part of this social transformation. However, social transformation can only develop through political struggle–not through the feel-go commodification of difference. That is the real thing that Coke doesn’t want us to see.