Of all the classic examples of Americans viewing the world only through the blurred prism of their own cultural experience, this one takes the cake: an uproar in the US during the past week or so that saw bemused Australians once again accused of racism, this time over a KFC advertisement.
The offending TV ad depicts a lone Aussie cricket fan sitting among a large group of raucous West Indies fans and is one of a cluster that ran during the recent Windies cricket tour of Australia as part of KFC's summer "Cricket Survival Guide" campaign.
In the ad, Aussie cricket fan Mick hands out KFC from a Crowd Pleaser bucket so he can watch the game in peace. In the other ads running in the series, grateful beneficiaries of Mick's fried-chook largesse include his in-laws, his mates, other Aussie fans, and a member of stadium security. Each of these seemingly generous acts has an ulterior motive: Mick just wants to watch the cricket without too many distractions.
No one in Australia would have given the Windies ad a second thought until last week, when US media picked up the story from Internet video hosting sites. At one stage, as the furore grew, it had been viewed over 200,000 times on YouTube.
The issue for Americans: it plays into a couple of racial stereotypes unique to the US that are largely unknown to Australians.
The first, if you believe the endless howls of protest from Americans flooding the Internet to moan about the ad, is that of the lone, uncomfortable white guy supposedly feeling threatened by a large group of blacks.
Mick, finding himself in an "awkward situation", hands out fried chicken to keep noisy opposing fans quiet, and having accomplished his goal, says: "Too easy" (a term used often in Australia in a whole range of situations from doing the banking to getting the kids to sleep and which means "sorted that out without any dramas").
In fairness, given the history of racism and white treatment of blacks in the US that saw some African Americans unable to even use the same bus seats or diners as whites until the mid-1960s in some southern states, you might have some idea of why Americans could find it offensive.
But be that as it may, cultural context here is everything, a point that seems to have been sorely missed in the US.
Dr Brendon O'Connor, an associate professor at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre who is writing a book about US stereotypes and insularity, says Americans have a tendency to think "their history is more important than that of other countries", while adding that in an American context – which in this case is out of context – the ad could look racist.
"Americans would find the ads racist mostly because they don't realise the context that the West Indies team was here to play cricket," he says.
To further support his case in regard to America's cultural insularity, O'Connor cites the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, during which he claims many high-ranking US officials had no understanding at all initially of the Sunni-Shia divide, which is key to a historical understanding of Iraqi politics.
He points out America is not unique in regard to its lack of understanding of others, but believes it is important for Americans to be more aware given the size of their country and the major role it now plays on the global political stage.
In the latest drama over the cricket ad, most Australian viewers would have understood immediately the "awkward situation" did not involve skin colour but the lone Aussie fan in a large group of passionate supporters from another team.
In this case, it was the West Indies, regular and much-loved visitors to Australia, who incidentally mainly happen to be black given the ethnic make-up of the Caribbean islands.
Which is probably why it went straight through to the 'keeper here.
Most Aussies, too, would have been blissfully unaware until now that in the US, some whites have stereotyped blacks over a supposed love for eating fried chicken.
And therein lies the problem: the ad (now pulled by an apologetic KFC Australia, who went to pains to spell out that no offence was intended) was never screened in the US nor intended for an American audience.
It was created in Australia for Australian consumption during the Test series against the Windies (who are sponsored by KFC) and only came to American attention on the Internet.
Americans also seemed not to understand that Aussies wouldn't have a second thought about the skin colour of Caribbean calypso cricketers and fans given that Australia has been playing the Windies in exciting and, dare I say it, colourful (and colourblind) cricket for decades.
And never mind that the ads featured Australians and West Indians, not Americans, and especially not African Americans.
Part of the problem is that it follows the ill-conceived Channel Nine Hey Hey It's Saturday reunion Jacksons blackface skit last year which so offended visiting American crooner Harry Connick Jr, a guest judge on the Australian TV show's Red Faces "gonged-off" segment.
That led to accusations of racism too but Connick accepted there was little or no understanding in Australia of the history of blackface which, because of the racist sensibilities of 19th and early 20th century all-white vaudeville audiences, denied African Americans the right to perform as themselves whilst lampooning them at the same time.
The consensus in Australia on the Hey Hey furore seems to be that it was firstly dreadful comedy, and being oblivious to US cultural sensitivity was only half an excuse for screening it on prime time TV.
It's worth noting, however, that the performers won the show's Red Faces segment with a similar skit 20 years ago whilst studying medicine, and one of the performers (who'd painted his face white to look like Michael Jackson) was actually of Indian background, and five of the six appearing on the Red Faces skit were themselves of multicultural background.
Yet, despite an apology from mortified Hey Hey host Daryl Somers, Americans, generally (and probably understandably in this case), weren't so forgiving and the uproar raged for weeks in the US media. I can understand that furore, although the performers appeared to be genuinely mortified too as they'd meant it as a tribute to Michael Jackson.
However, the KFC ad is something else again. Daniel Tencer, blogging on The Raw Story as though every non-American might understand the history behind the uproar, headed his piece, "KFC ad: Placate threatening black people with fried chicken".
He wrote: "Perhaps Australia somehow missed the memo that linking black people to fried chicken can be considered offensive. Or maybe, down under, playing up stereotypes to sell fast food just isn't a sin."
Yes, Daniel, we probably did miss it, especially as we're in a different country – different continent, too – where the same cultural experience doesn't apply. Just in case you missed it, this is Australia, not America, and the black cricket fans are from the Windies, not New York.
However, some august US publications jumped in on the action too. The Baltimore Sun's website asked: "How do you survive a crowd of `awkward' black people? According to KFC's latest advertisement, a bucket of fried chicken will do the trick."
To its credit, the Sun suggested context might indeed be everything, asking readers to ponder whether the awkward situation might simply have been the lone fan in the wrong group.
By week's end, Tencer, too, seemed to soften his stance slightly, perhaps swayed (or swamped) by a deluge of comments from angry Aussies moved in droves for once to switch the cricket off the TV and leave their opinions on his and other US sites.
Most suggested Americans should think outside their own square; plenty used irreverent Aussie humour to make a point (which is possibly where the other problem arises in any cross-cultural exchange with Americans).
"Daksian", commenting on The Huffington Post site, wrote: "Since KFC has pulled the ad … I'd like all American TV and movie production companies to stop using phrases like rooting for a team … please use the term `barracking' instead. Since American social mores have been dictated to Australia it is only fair that the reverse holds true as well."
Whether Americans accept such advice or not, the episode does appear to underline the way our brethren over the big pond appear to buy too easily into what might best be described as the myth of their own exceptionalism.
While the short history of the US doesn't wholly support the view, many Americans nevertheless like to think of themselves as the beacon of hope, the light on the hill … and, falsely, the only light.
In that light, pun intended, some Aussies might now suggest it's more a case of Americans collectively believing the sun in the US shines from a part of their anatomy where it usually don't, and it's blinded them.
(Interestingly, comments on the Internet also indicate Australia's cricket-loving mates from the Caribbean, where KFC has a history of supporting cricket in the islands, appear just as bemused as their Aussie counterparts by the uproar. Among a host of others on various sites, Espada12, commenting on Gamespot, wrote: "Nah, that ain't racist … and we are in the West Indies.)
The big winner here of course is KFC itself, which has accidentally stumbled, whether it now likes it or not, onto a de facto guerrilla marketing campaign that will have the cash registers ringing across two continents.
Now wait for America's legion of conspiracy theorists to come out of woodwork with their ideas on that one.
(This is an edited version of an article by the silver surfer that appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, Sydney, on January 10, 2010).
Footnote: This writer, a cricket fan, must have viewed this ad at least a dozen times during the recent Test cricket series between Australia and the West Indies, and not once did he register "black people" instead of "West Indies cricket fans". He believes all people should be in touch with all the facts before they begin levelling charges of racism at an entire country over a cricket ad.
The writer also suspects that the latest uproar says a wealth about a) American cultural insularity and b) its own baggage regarding racism rather than anything about any supposed entrenched racism in Australia, which remains, in his opinion, one of the world's most tolerant, colourblind, and multicultural societies (over 200 different ethnic groups are represented in Australia, and roughly one in four Aussies of all colours, races, and creeds were born somewhere else, while a large proportion of the remainder are the children or grandchildren of migrants from all over the world. A lot them like eating fried chicken, too, including the writer).Powered by Sidelines