Commercialism: accepted racism?

Last week, the popular clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch created a public stir by releasing and then quickly pulling four t-shirts portraying Asian Americans’ appearance, occupations and languages in a stereotypical manner. Baxter Hall quickly became the center for the shirt debate, as students posted flyers calling the shirts racist. The always-popular discussion board went up as well, so students could state their anonymous opinions. Several students commented that there are more important things to worry about than pulled t-shirts, and I wholeheartly agree. But, I still think that this is an issue we need to address.

By now, most people have formed their own opinion on the shirts. Some people, both Asians and non-Asians, have found the shirts funny and inoffensive, while others, as indicated by the flyers around campus, have found the shirts to be racist. Most people, however, have fallen somewhere in the middle, seeing the shirts as stereotypical and distasteful, but not containing the sense of malevolence and hatred that is associated with racism.

However, an equally important question is why Abercrombie & Fitch (A & F) ever printed these shirts in the first place. Clearly, people of all races have found the shirts offensive or have at least been turned off enough not to buy the shirts. So what motivated A & F to make these shirts? The answer lies within both the targets of the shirts and the company itself.

First, let us examine the company itself. To put it mildly, A&F has not been the poster child for political correctness in recent years. Their catalogs are littered with images of blond-haired, blue-eyed models that usually aren’t even wearing any A&F clothing. In an age where most media has some sort of minority representation, token as it usually is, A&F doesn’t even try to do that. Or, maybe more appropriately, A&F doesn’t care to try. The images A&F portray in their catalogs reveal a company that believes they do not have to play by the same rules as everybody else, and this arrogance is seen elsewhere.

Much of their clothing is shameless self-promotion, as they brand their name on the front, back, side and anywhere else they can fit it in. For the record, who plays for “Abercrombie Football”? Does that team take on the headset people from Old Navy in the mall parking lot? And their clothing is overpriced. Why is a t-shirt from the Gap fifteen dollars while one from A&F is thirty? Does the big “92” on the front of the shirts really merit doubling the price? Maybe all that extra money goes towards those great European techno CDs that always seem to be playing there.

But in the end, A&F gets away with it all. They sold over $1.4 billion in merchandise last year, and as long as mall savvy teenagers (or more importantly their paying parents) believe that wearing A&F is the only way to go, they will continue to get away with it.

So even though Abercrombie & Fitch pushed a little too much this time, they still knew what they were doing. They targeted a minority that they thought they could get away with stereotyping.

In 1997, golfer Fuzzy Zoeller suggested that Tiger Woods would eat fried chicken and collard greens for his champion’s dish at the Masters. Zoeller got roasted. He was vilified in the public eye, lost his million-dollar sponsorship and will be forever remembered by most as the fool who made such a stupid comment. The difference between Zoeller’s comments and A&F t-shirts is that Zoeller is a professional golfer who was making side comments to reporters he was friendly with, and Abercrombie & Fitch is a multi-national billion-dollar company.

These shirts obviously went through some sort of design and production period, so why did the shirts get made? Either everyone at A&F is just that oblivious, or they thought no one would care because the shirts are directed at Asians.

Would A&F or any other clothing company produce shirts that display African Americans eating fried chicken and collard greens? No, because they know the public relations backlash would be so severe that they would have a hard time recovering. So instead, A&F made a calculated decision to direct their shirts towards Asian Americans because they thought they could without paying a steep price. Yes, the shirts were pulled and they received some negative press, but that’s about it.

The comments made by A&F spokesman Hampton Carey say a lot. “We thought everyone would like these t-shirts, especially the Asian community. We thought they were cheeky, irreverent and funny and everyone would love them.”

What? Did they think by saying “Me love you long time” and showing Asians with slanted eyes that they were becoming the friend of Asian-American community? A&F shows not only that they didn’t get it, but that they still don’t get it. Their justification for the shirts was that they have made fun of other groups, such as foreign waitresses. Oh ok, everything’s fine then, because they have made fun of a group that already has to struggle to get by in society. Real noble.

So in the end, nothing much with A&F has changed. There was no sincere apology to the Asian American community and no acknowledgment that the shirts were stereotypical and never should have been printed. The message A&F is sending is clear. We made a mistake, but we’re not really sorry about it, and we’ll probably do it again because we think we can.