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Gone With the Wind: Another Missed Economic Opportunity To Re-position History

03/04/2014 11:00 am ET | Updated May 04, 2014

As black fades to green, Black History Month once again came to a close and the annual celebration of Ireland's initiation into the world of Christianity begins. Ironically, marketers have lucked-up on a way to capitalize on this Christian holiday, seemingly without being offensive to anyone, by focusing solely on the shamrock-greening of merchandise: green beer, green milkshakes, you name it.

The irony of Black History Month is that despite the trillion dollar buying power of our segmented community, as highlighted by Nielsen and the endless potential for businesses to raise their profits from selling historical African-American dishes, celebrity/inventor dolls, Iman and Fashion Fair beauty products, mainstream businesses are stuck in a quagmire. They stand to be ridiculed by the very population they are targeting if they change their merchandise and menus to reflect a traditional American heritage of African influence during the month of February. On one hand they risk being accused of mockery; on the other, they continue to create window-shoppers from missed economic opportunities that could be gained through further expanding their standard selections.

But that is just it, businesses and their ability to include a range of real American scenarios into their pallet of advertising also influence how we as Americans see ourselves. Cheerios and Subaru seem to have realized that an American family or couple can come in a variety of ethnic heritages. Unfortunately, many viewers narrowly see their commercials as social statements only rather than actual reality: There are many American families that are of Asian, African, European, Central and South American combinations. There are Polish and German families. There are Albanian and Greek families. There are Jewish and Christian families, but as long as the actors' skin-tones are the same, we seem to overlook the historical ethnic differences that many of these cultures shared and the resulting wars that led to the deaths of hundreds, if not millions. We are stuck solely in a color warp. So, businesses, rather than risk the heat of disappointing their singular color-oriented customers, choose to stick to tradition and offer the same answer as Rhett gave Scarlett.

But fast forward to February 2015 -- upon who does the onus of change (or acceptance) lie and where do we begin to change? What is the process of describing and accepting ourselves as just 'American'? How will we scale that change and make sure that we are, indeed, collectively describing ourselves as Americans?

In 1965, Dr. King asked a crowd in Selma: How long? Obviously, the audience was lying when they retorted with him: Not long! Many years later, the arc of the moral universe is taking a bit too long to bend towards inclusiveness. I had to laugh when I read a Chinese expat site where a blogger asked, "How's that melting pot in America working out? (hmm, no emoticon for a flushing toilet...)." 'Hmm' is right.

By this day and age, one would think that the contributions of all Americans would be consistently recognized. For instance, NPR's lovely story on the successful business strategies of the Fashion Fair Fashion Show creator Eunice Johnson could be amongst the many examples of successful American business strategies -- a story that could be featured any time of year in a general business segment (Thank you NPR.). The very fact that a month is still needed to highlight individuals' contributions to the American landscape speaks volumes to our inability to see ourselves as one indivisible nation. The Nielsen Report itself is a bit disturbing in how detailed we are in segregating ourselves down a color line, even specifying that Hispanic is not a race -- one must segregate Hispanic individuals down that color line as well. All this despite scientific 'color' findings to the contrary that are painfully pointed out by actress Thandie Newton -- racial identity isn't always what it 'appears' to be.

Colored, Negro, Black to African-American. Why not American? At the end of the day and end of this month -- an Irish American, whether wearing a four-leaf clover for good luck or a 3-leaf for Christian purposes, can go back to being an American and need not identify himself (or herself as March is also Women's History Month) as anything other than an American! Of course, that is unless the Irish American happens to have a Kenyan father. He then becomes an African American, but what of the child who is of an Indian Kenyan father and an Irish or even Polish American mother? He, too, is technically African-American or is he? We are back to square one -- racial identity. If we are to remove 'racial' barriers and celebrate an existence of being Americans does it not first begin with the removal of terms that signify race instead of heritage? Furthermore, as we become global citizens, is it not possible to follow the lead of Wikipedia which clearly references individuals as 'an American actress,' 'an American athlete,' etc.?

But, since designated months, like individual behaviors, may not change rapidly, businesses may be our only hope. They may be able to do for American inclusiveness (and their own pockets) what Bernays did for the bacon industry via the All 'American' Breakfast. Or, they can sit back, while yet another year rolls away from the universe's arc of human inclusiveness and simply cherish the quote: Frankly my dear, I don't give a ....