Missouri’s tourism board has cast a Black actress as “Mo” — the new face of the state, even as an NAACP travel advisory remains in effect against the region.
According to Char Adams of NBC News, the NAACP issued a warning urging Black visitors to Missouri to be cautious due to the prevalence of discrimination in the state. Yet even with this warning still in effect, Adams reported, “the Missouri Division of Tourism recently introduced ‘Mo,’ a smiling Black woman, in a campaign full of photos, videos and even games.”
In a news release, the division’s director, Stephen Foutes, said that Mo represents “Missouri and everything we have to offer visitors in our state.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Maria Benevento said, “Mo is described as ‘a character and tour guide of sorts’ who will help visitors find information about tourism opportunities in the state.”
Over 200 local Missouri actors are said to have auditioned for the role, and Foutes told the Post-Dispatch the state is “proud to feature an African American and Missouri native in this campaign to welcome future visitors to Missouri.”
Still, Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel has said he’s confused by the state’s actions.
“I don’t quite understand where they’re going with the campaign, and why [they] put a Black face on it,” Chapel said. “Missouri is a place that has been marked by violence and Jim Crow. It’s good that they’re trying to think inclusively for people they should invite to the state,” while also noting that the government “hasn’t done anything to address those risks (travelers face) in a meaningful way.”
He added that NAACP’s travel advisory is still in effect and will remain so until Missouri makes “some meaningful progress in the systemic abuses affecting people of color.”
The state chapter of the NAACP issued the advisory in August 2017, urging Black people “to travel with extreme caution because race, gender and color-based crimes have a long history in Missouri.“
Adams said that, according to the advisory, “Black people in Missouri are 75% more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by law enforcement. [The advisory] also cites the passing of a bill that made it difficult to sue for discrimination and referred to the recent deaths of Black men in confrontations with law enforcement, including Tory Sanders in 2017, a Black inmate at a rural jail who died after a white law enforcement officer pressed his knee onto Sanders’ neck.
The state’s attorney general at the time was Josh Hawley. He has since moved on to become one of Missouri’s Senators and the heir-apparent to former President Trump’s most conservative base of supporters through his repeated offensive antics.
To make matters worse, the Visit Mo tourism campaign isn’t even well-done, according to some messaging experts. The promotion features St. Louis native Ashley Santana in various costumes, goofily posing in front of what appear to be backgrounds that have been photoshopped in. In each, she’s dubbed with somewhat tone-deaf titles like “Outdoor Mo,” “Culture Mo,” and “Road Trip Mo” — all of which have the potential to read as either childish, sophomoric or even offensive and stereotypical depending upon a person’s point of view.
All around, the message and optics of “Mo” aren’t what Missouri was hoping for in their attempt to strike ahead of summer 2021 when travel is expected to soar and local hotels, restaurants and travel destinations are desperate to make up for the income lost from the pandemic lockdowns of 2020.