AASiA takes on Abercrombie and racism at Williams and beyond

Two weeks ago, when asked to describe Abercrombie and Fitch, a popular clothing company, words like “preppy” and “stylish” might have sprung to mind. Those familiar with their t-shirt line, featuring witty and often sexually charged slogans and designs, might have responded with “edgy.” Now, however, Abercrombie has acquired a disturbing new adjective in the minds of many: “racist.”

On April 18, the company recalled a group of t-shirts, part of its summer line, from every one of its stores. The shirts, which had been on shelves for less than a week, featured caricatures of Asians, complete with slanted eyes and rice-paddy hats, and puns relating to the Asian community. The protest against Abercrombie came primarily from Asian groups on college campuses, including Asian American Students in Action (AASiA) at Williams.

If Abercrombie thought that a simple recall of the offending shirts would quell protests, it was most certainly wrong. Many Asian American students hope to use the incident to help build awareness of popular racist stereotypes and prevent other companies from using tactics akin to Abercrombie’s to sell products in the future.

“We can’t let them make ignorant statements like this part of popular culture,” said Eric Hsu ’05, AASiA’s public relations director.

The controversy began when the t-shirts in question landed on Abercrombie store shelves across the country. One featured two stereotypical Asian men dashing across a navy blue background. Each caricature featured obviously slanted eyes and conical straw hats. Emblazoned in bold white were the words, “Wong Brothers Laundry Service – Two Wongs can make it white.” “Buddha Bash,” another shirt read. “Get your buddha on the dance floor!”

Within a few days of the t-shirts’ release, the offending designs came to the attention of Asian American students at Stanford University. The Asian American student organization there organized a protest in front of a San Francisco Abercrombie store and spread the word through e-mail to similar organizations on other college campuses. Realizing that Asian Americans were not going to sit quietly, Abercrombie executives hurriedly ordered the first product recall in the company’s recent history.

“We personally thought Asians would love this t-shirt,” Abercrombie spokesman Hampton Carney told one newspaper immediately after the recall. “We are truly and deeply sorry we’ve offended people. . . we never single out any one group to poke fun at.”

Soon after, Carney publicly expounded on his previous comments: “The thought was that everyone would love them, especially the Asian community. We thought they were cheeky, irreverent and funny. . . But that has not been the case.”

With these statements, Abercrombie tried to end the sorry saga of the t-shirts. From a practical standpoint, however, the shirts’ shelf lives are far from over. The shirts can still be bought on popular internet auction site E-Bay, where bids on the controversial items have reached astronomical levels. And, according to Ju Kim ’04, AASiA’s co-chair, and Lillian Chang ’05, AASiA’s representative on the Minority Coalition, the shirts may be put on sale in Abercrombie stores overseas.

While representatives of AASiA admit that students at a small school like Williams don’t have the same collective clout as those at a big-name university like Stanford, they’re still trying to do their part to sock it to Abercrombie. AASiA is sponsoring a petition, which attracted a large number of signatures in Baxter Hall last week, calling for the immediate removal of the shirts from all markets. It also demands a public apology from CEO Michael Jeffries.

“The apology is to be published in the form of a one-page advertisement in all the major newspapers, as well as posted on the company website and the next issue of their quarterly catalogue,” elaborated Kim.

In addition, early this week, AASiA will come out with a formal statement on the matter, which should echo the sentiments of the petition. Kim will present the statement to College Council (CC), along with the petition, to try and secure a CC endorsement. The statement and petition will then be mailed to Abercrombie’s Ohio headquarters. The Williams packet should come as part of a deluge of similar mailings from Asian American student organizations on college campuses throughout the nation.

“We want to show them that people who fit into the Abercrombie and Fitch market don’t like what they’ve done and want an apology,” said Hsu.

Most Williams students, of course, fit into what is perceived as Abercrombie’s “market.” Williams students, after all, are generally seen as athletic, extroverted, trendy and preppy, all characteristics to which Abercrombie aggressively markets. While in the past Abercrombie has done an admirable job, as witnessed by the vast amount of its clothing which can be seen worn on campus on any given day, its latest product line has provoked a great deal of derision among the College’s non-Asian population. While there is an occasional voice sympathetic to the company (one message on AASiA’s response board in Baxter Hall declares, “Hey, I thought they were funny. Settle down now.”), for the most part, students have been left wondering how a well-respected company like Abercrombie could make such a monumental mistake in expecting Asian Americans to find the t-shirt designs humorous and harmless.

Chang was also shocked when she heard about the shirts: “I didn’t think [the Abercrombie t-shirt designs] could happen in this day and age. I thought that sort of thing went out 100 years ago.”

Many in the Asian American community, however, did not share Chang’s surprise.

“This is symptomatic of the problem in which there are minority groups that are still open targets for denigration,” said Scott Wong, professor of history, and an expert on Asian American history.

Wong went on say that under no circumstances would Abercrombie have even considered trying to sell t-shirts making light of black and Jewish stereotypes; in general, mocking these minority groups is seen as taboo in American society. However, Arabs and Native Americans, along with Asians, remain fair game.

Kim agreed that Abercrombie’s shirts were no blip on the historical radar, but rather the continuation of a trend that dates back to the days when Asian immigrants first arrived en masse to the United States. “Caricatures of Asians as conical hat-wearing and slant-eyed are reminiscent of political cartoons that were historically used to cast Asian Americans as devious foreigners. These caricatures fostered an atmosphere of intense discrimination and xenophobia,” he said.

Members of AASiA hope to use the controversy as a starting point to discuss the malignant existence of such stereotypes in mainstream American culture, how they developed through American history and how to eliminate them. For his part, Hsu thinks the most important step is being taken right now by young Asian Americans.

“When you look at different minority groups and their public voice, Asian Americans have a small one. Our younger generation wants to break traditional modes of pas
sivity and silence,” he said.

Another imperative step, according to Kim, is to institute an Asian American Studies program at Williams, as can be found at larger universities. Kim pointed out that students in his modern Asian American history class (taught by Wong) were better able to understand the history behind the stereotypes presented on Abercrombie’s shirts after dealing with them in the classroom.

“We’re hoping that this Abercrombie and Fitch incident will convince the administration that Asian American studies needs to be included in our liberal arts curriculum,” said Kim.

Kim’s chances of success are slim at this point, but he and other members of AASiA feel that the time is now to fight back against latent Asian stereotypes in society and against companies like Abercrombie and Fitch which seek to capitalize on them.

“[Our success] depends on how much momentum we can keep on the campaign. It’s very easy to let the pressure drop,” said Hsu. “The controversy has been a lot of publicity for them. We need to make sure it’s negative publicity.”