Coca-Cola Missed a Teaching Opportunity With Dance-Show Decision

Controversy Continues Concerning White Sorority's Victory

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Pepper Miller
Pepper Miller
People are still viewing the YouTube videos and are posting comments about the White sorority, the Epsilon Chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA) from the University of Arkansas. They initially won first place at Coca-Cola's 2010 National Sprite Step Off back in February. This old news is new news as one of the more popular videos of the ZTAs stepping now exceeds 807,000 views and is still prompting controversial remarks.

"Greek Stepping" is a big deal because it speaks to the tradition and creative style originated from Black college sororities and fraternities. It's not uncommon to see highly competitive step teams performing synchronized and stylized moves that include marching sequences layered with bumps, grinds, acrobatics, spoken word, grunts and military-like call and responses. The most creative performance wins the prize along with respect, style ownership, and a type of "street cred" that contributes to the persona of the sorority or fraternity.

I watched a few clips of some of the losers, but repeatedly watched the entire performances by the ZTAs and the AKAs (a Black sorority). The AKAs were good, but the ZTAs worked it, and in my opinion, were the clear winners. Seemingly, the mostly Black audience and I were in agreement, as they wildly cheered throughout the ZTAs' performance.

However, when guest co-host Ludacris announced the ZTAs as the first place winner, the crowd booed.

There were lots and lots of support from YouTube and commenters who supported the judges' decision. But, there were others who were outraged, claiming that the ZTAs "stole" their moves from Black sororities, and the "haters" who described the performance as mediocre and flat out said the ZTAs couldn't step.

"Cultural theft" has been an ongoing discussion in the Black community for several years. It is a deeply rooted issue that originates from many Blacks -- young and old -- who believe that Whites have benefited from trends or actions that have been created by, shaped by, or are particularly unique to Black culture. Think:

  • Chuck Berry and rock and roll. Although Chuck put it on the map, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were credited more for its creation.

  • Bo Derek and the braided blonde hair style that she wore in the movie "10" (1979). That style became a "new look" for White females.

  • Conservative political analyst Pat Buchannan, who last year while vehemently denouncing affirmative action on "The Rachel Maddow Show," said that (America) "was built basically by White folks."

  • White participation in hip-hop. In the film documentary, Blacking Up, which aired on PBS earlier this year, producer Robert A. Clift explores the "tensions" surrounding this issue. Cliff writes about the dual insights that his film uncovers: "[Blacking Up] is an example of cultural progress -- a movement toward a color-blind America. For others, it is just another case of cultural theft and mockery -- a repetition of a racist past".

In the end, Coca-Cola announced a "scoring discrepancy" and awarded two first-place winners -- the ZTAs and the AKAs. Both teams received $100,000 in scholarship prize money.

The move prompted cries of reverse-racism. One example: commenters on the Boston Herald's site (whom I assume were mostly white).

I reached out to Coca-Cola to understand the details of the recount, but didn't hear from them. I was sorry to learn about the dual prize decision. There was no cultural theft on the part of the ZTAs. They wanted to win, so they did what it takes to win. They worked hard and brought it.

Something happens when we throw racism into to the game with only half truths and half thinking. Everyone goes crazy, trying to define what's racist and what isn't. In the end, racism gets misconstrued, and then we drop it. Dropping it doesn't make it go away. It still needs to be addressed.

When Coca-Cola reversed its decision, it missed the opportunity to tell a "new truth" and a "new story" about inclusion, cultural progress vs. cultural theft, race and common courtesy and sportsmanship. (Booing the ZTAs was rude and unacceptable.)

It could have been a great teachable moment for all of us -- consumers, brands and the country.

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