Manifest Destiny (or, whoa, Gap Inc, what the hell?)

14 Oct

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.

Gap x GQ Mark McNairy Manifest T

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.

Spirit of the Frontier by John Gast – possibly the graphic for The Gap’s next line of colonial shirts?

P.S. There is an online petition that you can sign asking that Gap Inc discontinue this t-shirt and issue a formal apology

39 Responses to “Manifest Destiny (or, whoa, Gap Inc, what the hell?)”

  1. MamaToBean October 14, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

    I think you might be right, that GAP didn’t know what Manifest Destiny means or the history behind it. Because you know what? Neither did I until now. I knew about the atrocities but didn’t know there was a phrase associated with them. The way we teach history to our kids needs to change as well and include a less slanted view – and a more modern teaching. Residential schools should be a topic as well as the Japanese internment camps. I learned about those in English class because Obasan was on the reading list.

    The racism in Canada towards the Native populace is disgusting. From factual misunderstandings to out and out hatred of the fact they get “tax breaks” and free houses. Which is SO not the case. In order for us to move forward we need to remember what came before because we can’t fix the future without learning from the past.

    Also I love the new look of your blog. 🙂

    • Stephanie M October 15, 2012 at 7:21 am #

      Thank you for sharing this! I am in a group of people working actively to get the petition’s goals met! It is great to see some education, true education about this. Great overview and viewpoint. Thanks again, a member of the Washoe Tribe of NV and CA

    • bellejarblog October 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

      Yeah, the history taught in our schools is very, very skewed. Especially in French schools, where all we learned was that the French came to Canada before the English and were totally peaceful and cool with the First Nations, and then the English came and ruined it for everyone, the end.

      I can’t even deal with people who want to tell me how “easy” Aboriginal peoples in Canada have things. It just makes me want to punch a wall over and over.

      And thanks! I played around with the design, like, all weekend. You know, because I have nothing freaking better to do with my time.

      • Jennie October 15, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

        I am pretty sure that the phrase “Manifest Destiny” was part of one of my high school history courses, but I can’t remember whether it was mandatory grade 9/10 history or optional OAC Modern Western Civilizations. I am pretty sure I recall writing about the historical significance of the idea, at some point, though.

        In this case, I don’t think ignorance is much of an excuse. GAP can certainly afford to hire someone to Google their catchy slogans to make sure they’re not unwittingly celebrating genocide.

  2. Leopard [Crates and Ribbons] October 15, 2012 at 3:57 pm #


    • bellejarblog October 15, 2012 at 4:44 pm #


      • Leopard [Crates and Ribbons] October 16, 2012 at 10:35 am #

        According to Gap’s twitter feed, they’ll no longer be selling it! =) Not sure if they’ll be issuing a proper apology though…

      • bellejarblog October 17, 2012 at 2:06 am #

        Yeah I saw that! I really, really hope they issue an apology, although that’s looking less and less likely :/

  3. Gregg Deal (@the_lame_sauce) October 15, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    as a native, it’s too much. so i decided to make some shirts of my own:

    • bellejarblog October 15, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

      AMAZING. I love them! Do you think Gap will give you a share of the profits or just trade you some beads and blankets?

      • Audra Williams October 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm #


      • Thetruth October 18, 2012 at 3:19 am #

        “Trade you beads and blankets.” That comment is more racist than that tshirt could ever be.

    • Angela Nez October 15, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

      awesome! also add some cool hip “Slavery” and “Haulocaust” shirts too

  4. Angela Nez October 15, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    and while he’s at it, let’s ask Mr. McNairy to print up some cool hip “Slavery” and “Haulocaust” t-shirts too!

    • Thetruth October 16, 2012 at 4:00 am #

      Learn to spell. It’s Holocaust. And there’s a difference. Manifest Destiny actually has no meaning rooted in racism. It means taking control of your destiny. You’re all mad at Mcnairy for using a COOL, HIP term and labeling him a racist because of the way American settlers used the term hundreds of years ago! No comparison. He isn’t advocating the deaths of Native Americans. He’s encouraging people to live their lives.

      • bellejarblog October 17, 2012 at 2:05 am #

        I didn’t use the word Holocaust? I actually didn’t use it even once in this post?

        I don’t think McNairy meant anything racist by putting Manifest Destiny on a t-shirt; unfortunately, good intent and ignorance are no excuses, especially in light of the historical uses of the term.

      • bellejarblog October 17, 2012 at 2:10 am #

        Oh wait, I see. You’e here to harass the commenters as well. That’s cool dude! No wait, opposite.

  5. spotter77 October 15, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    BAH. The Gap is the only store *anywhere* that I can walk in, grab a size, length, and style of jeans, and know that those pants will fit. *Without trying anything on.* For a woman in the US, that’s nothing shy of a miracle. It’s a pity, then, that they’re not as smart about their slogans as they are their jeans. I completely agree with Jennie–a Google search is free and takes less than a second. They do not get a “But I didn’t know!” pass.

    • bellejarblog October 18, 2012 at 3:33 am #

      Totally agree – no pleading ignorance pass for them! Maybe they can hire me and pay me a million dollars to google things for them?

  6. Thetruth October 16, 2012 at 3:50 am #

    Jesus. Effing. Christ. You can google a phrase wooooo! Lets start a petition and call everything racist.

    • bellejarblog October 17, 2012 at 2:03 am #

      I can google a phrase, yes. Which apparently puts me ahead of The Gap and Mark McNairy.


  7. Thetruth October 16, 2012 at 4:01 am #

    Oh and the other thing… This shirt has been out for a month, the marketing for it… Longer. And y’all just getting offended now? Get a life. For real.

    • bellejarblog October 17, 2012 at 2:06 am #

      You’re … you’re telling me to get a life? Your cruel words have cut me deeply, internet stranger. I’m really sad that I haven’t lived up to your apparently high expectations for me. I’ll try to do better next time, I promise!

  8. Mimi October 17, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

    I think this is absolutely ridiculous that natives feel entitled to stick their nose into everyone’s business because it ‘hurts their feelings’.

    We get it, we took your land and you feel a deep entitlement to free education, no taxes and who knows what else. But you know what… throughout history people have been stealing land from other people. You need to stop drawing pity to your people and move forward like the rest of the world.

    You are just a bunch of entitled greedy leeches that like to cry out and draw attention to yourselves.

    • Eileen Marion October 17, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

      So what does that make you????

    • Thetruth October 18, 2012 at 3:21 am #

      The shirt has been out for 2 and a half months, somebody thinks they’re getting a settlement.

      • bellejarblog October 18, 2012 at 3:34 am #

        Yeah totally! Aboriginal peoples are so greedy, they just want free money, right?

    • bellejarblog October 18, 2012 at 3:34 am #

      Do you really want to talk about feelings of entitlement?

  9. sage January 18, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

    Look, the truth is the truth. You can’t revise history. You can find things to be offeded at in EVERY culture. My ggg grandfather fought in the war for Independence from England. His son fought in the War of 1812 which had a number of causes INCLUDING England making Americans slaves on ships. My gg grandpa fought in the Mexican War….again there is much more to it than you make it sound. My g grandpa drove cattle up the Chisum Trail and homesteaded. My grandfather fought in WW I. My father served in WW II. Like MANY who settled this country, they did what the era called for. They raised large God-fearing famlies and contributed to their communities. So please quit white bashing. My father said that it is ignorant to generalize. IF you look close enough at every race and culture you will find things to be offended by. The U.S. has evolved and IS a good country. Manifest Destiny IS part of our history, just like how many Native American tribes killed off weaker tribes and took slaves before we ever got here. It’s offensive, it’s truth and it is history. Why don’t you go after the idiots wearing Natzi crap? Because in America we have freedoms and rights that were bought with a price….and by whites in majority.
    We have a black President now, so progress moves on. The Mexicans are reclaiming the West by population, so things are balancing out…right? The whites didn’t wreck this country….so get off of your high horse.-Sage

    • bellejarblog January 19, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

      It’s not white bashing to point out that white people don’t want to acknowledge their privilege. And no one is disputing that Manifest Destiny is a part of America’s history, but that doesn’t mean that it should be celebrated. And, like, what you think if a major retailer made a neo-nazi shirt that I would be like, GREAT, NO OUTRAGE HERE?

      I mean, that’s fine, continue on with your privilege and keep being racist. That’s cool.

  10. sage January 19, 2013 at 5:06 am #

    You have the right to have your own point of view, but when you perpetuate ignorance and don’t publish other views that show that your premise is flawed, you add to the ignorance. A real femininist has guts, not just words.

    • bellejarblog January 19, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

      Uh, dude, I’m not a newspaper. This is a personal blog. And by approving your racist comments, I am “publishing other views”.


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