There’s no denying that Mike Tyson’s public persona capitalises on racist depictions of black masculinity. At his peak, Tyson was a pioneer of a particular kind of black fame that honed in on physical prowess. His was boxing. He punched and punched and punched until he was at the top of his game, quickly rising to undisputed champion status. Tyson was a black man known and celebrated in a sport notorious for aggression. Whilst he’s been off the radar for a number of years, his pervasive public caricature still lingers in the back of the mind.
The public’s temptation of harnessing the sheer power of a right hook have finally been satisfied, long after Tyson’s retirement, in a Polish energy drink endorsed by him, named Black Power.
Before the phrase was co opted to market a sugary energy drink, Black Power stood (and still stands) for a movement that was the pinpoint of defence against racist oppression. Perhaps of the most iconic pop culture references the movement is the tight fisted salute at the 200m final in the 1968 Summer Olympics. That Black Power was defiant and proud, typifying an astute threat to a white establishment reluctant to budge on human rights.
But this new sugary, energy laden Black Power signifies a cynical subversion of those values. It’s still threatening, but not in a liberation from oppression way. It’s threatening in a beat the crap out of your opponent and mercilessly rip off an ear way- a metonym for unrestrained violent aggression in a can. Both threats disrupt the status quo- one for the means emancipation, another destructively so. This raises some serious questions. In a white supremacist patriarchal society, powerful blackness- a concept that exists in within structures not favoured to black advancement- is either reduced to benign humour or inflated to threatening, dangerous and angry.
Advertisements for the drink draw on tired clichés of what a successful black man’s life looks like- he’s surrounded by attractive white women in both adverts, their objectified flesh gleaming at the viewer whilst they smile and keep eerily silent. In one advert, a woman is handed over to another man as a gift. This objectification of female flesh isn’t new, but thrown into a mix of imagery dominated by the glorification of Tyson, a convicted rapist, the dynamics change somewhat.
Images of powerful, predatory black men and docile, prey like white women effectively hark back to a racist understanding of black masculinity as old as slavery- with blackness equated to danger. It existed back then, and it’s prevalent today in the heavily biased amplification of Asian sex gang stories, with young white girls described as ‘easy meat’ by those who claim to protect them. Whilst these generalised stereotypes find themselves sticking to black men regardless of flesh incriminated, Tyson has been proved to be a danger to women. A supermarket that stocks an energy drink endorsed by any man convicted of rape unwittingly legitimises violence against women in all its forms. Women shop in Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Rape survivors shop in Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Frankly, stocking these goods is an irresponsible act.
This product’s clearly marketed to straight men, and there’s some unpacking to be done in regards to what energy drinks stand for in the discourse on heteronormative patriarchy, and what Tyson adds to it as a rapist, glorified and endorsing a product that promises to give you a rush. But, Tyson as an admirable public figure? That’s not how black works.