Full disclosure: I like The Gap. Honestly, I do. Since Theo’s birth, I’ve spent a significant portion of my time (and income) in Gap Kids, cooing over pint-sized button-down shirts, cunning little sweater vests and pastel onesies with adorably clever graphics. I’ve even written here before about how impressed I was that they were selling pink and purple clothing in the boys’ department.
So imagine my surprise and dismay when I learned that they were selling men’s t-shirts with MANIFEST DESTINY written in bold letters across the chest.
This t-shirt is part of a collection called Gap x GQ, which The Gap says is “an exclusive menswear collection [created by] GQ’s best new designers”. The specific person responsible for the MANIFEST DESTINY shirt is Mark McNairy, an American fashion designer who is known for his past work for J.Press and Southwick, and who now has his own label, Mark McNairy New Amsterdam. While this might mean that Gap Inc themselves aren’t the ones who dreamed up this graphic, certainly a team of their own designers and quality control people would have had to approve it. You would think that somewhere in the design, review and manufacturing process, someone would have realized how glaringly racist this shirt is. You would think.
For those of you who don’t know what Manifest Destiny is, and why this shirt is so offensive, let’s have a brief history lesson.
The term Manifest Destiny was coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan in 1845 as part of his campaign to encourage the annexation of Texas and Oregon County. His first use of the phrase, in the 1845 July-August issue of the Democratic Review, didn’t draw much attention, but the second time he used it, in a column published in the New York Morning News on December 27th, 1845, became extremely influential:
“And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
Manifest Destiny became the smart, fancy-sounding name for a belief that had already been around for quite some time: namely, that white folks of European descent were destined to rule the entirety of North America. These people truly believed that it was God’s will that they colonize the new world and systematically destroy any civilizations that might already be occupying the lands they wanted.
Manifest Destiny and the philosophy behind it are responsible for a whole bunch of really terrible things. It was used to justify the Mexican-American War, the War of 1812, and, most appallingly, the Indian Removal Act. Manifest Destiny was used to vindicate the myriad abuses suffered by people of colour at the hands of white North Americans. It’s the philosophy that lead to our continent-wide reservation system , not to mention the residential schools created for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.
The effects of Manifest Destiny can still be felt, in the poverty and degradation suffered by American and Canadian people of colour, and in the deplorable conditions found on many reserves, both here and south of the border. The ideas behind manifest destiny still exist in our white western consciousness, as much as we might be loathe to admit it; they come up every time our (largely white) government asserts that it knows best when it comes to First Nations issues, or every time someone complains about how much freaking money has already been spent on Attawapiskat only to have their community still be in a state of crisis. Manifest Destiny is apparent every time someone chooses to be bigoted and wilfully ignorant about non-white immigrants, or tries to deny the far-reaching effects of racism; it’s apparent in the mindset of all the people who never take a moment to wonder why or how so many white people ended up owning so much fucking land.
Look, I don’t think that The Gap, or Mark McNairy, or GQ, or anyone involved here was trying to be offensive. My guess is that they thought that Manifest Destiny was a hip-sounding phrase, one that conveyed the idea of taking control over one’s own life or something like that. I’m certain (or at least hopeful) that Gap Inc. will end up pulling this shirt from their stores, issue a formal apology, and go through a brief, though sincere, period of mea culpa. As unbelievable as it is to me, I’m sure that those responsible for designing, approving and manufacturing this shirt did not understand the full scope of what its graphic meant.
And that, in a nutshell, is the main problem here.
The problem is that we want to forget; as white North Americans, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by forgetting. We even ask that people of colour, especially, in this case, Aboriginal peoples, participate in our collective cultural amnesia. We tell them that we’ll never have the post-racial society that everyone wants until we stop bringing up the past, stop licking old wounds. We don’t want to feel guilty, especially as we often believe that we, the generation living now, are not responsible. After all, it wasn’t us drafting racist and genocidal laws calling for the relocation and often murder of an entire race of people; it wasn’t us sending thousands of First Nations kids to residential schools, where they would be subject to a dizzying array of abuses.
We don’t have blood on our hands; we’re good people. It’s not our fault that our ancestors were assholes, right?
What we often forget is that our privileged lives are built on the foundation of these grievous human rights abuses; we might not be our asshole ancestors, might even willingly speak out against the crimes they committed, but we’re still pretty fucking happy to reap the benefits of those crimes. We do have blood on our hands, whether we like it or not.
So maybe it’s not a bad thing that The Gap made this t-shirt; and maybe, rather than flinging vitriol at Gap Inc. and swearing to boycott their brand, we can all of us use this as an opportunity to start a dialogue about what Manifest Destiny really means, and the ways that we, as modern-day North Americans, can fight against its lasting effects. I would love if Gap Inc. would be the ones to start this dialogue; I would love for them to take this chance to talk about our racist heritage, and how our wilful blindness to the past lead them to allow for the design and creation of this shirt. That would be pretty cool, right?
I mean, almost as cool as the idea that God wants you to take over a whole fucking continent, destroying and degrading the civilizations that are already there, just because your skin is white.
P.S. There is an online petition that you can sign asking that Gap Inc discontinue this t-shirt and issue a formal apology