Tag Archives: Gap Inc.

Deconstructing Racism And Privilege

18 Oct

Before we start, let me be really upfront about a few things.

First of all, I am not an expert on racism; I haven’t studied it extensively, and what I’m about to write here is mostly based on a few smart books/articles, conversations with friends, and stuff that I’ve read online. Oh, and feelings. I have a lot of feelings about racism.

Second of all, I’m white. I mean, like, really white. I have the complexion of an anemic Swede. So obviously I don’t fully understand racism and its impact because I will never personally experience it directed towards me. Everything that I’m writing here is offered as the perspective of someone who lives in the land of white privilege.

So with that baseline in place, I want to talk a bit about racism in general and some of the fallout from The Gap’s Manifest Destiny debacle in particular (sidebar: isn’t debacle a great word? let’s all agree to use it more often). I’ve been reading some of the comments left on my blog, on my Facebook page, on BlogHer and on this piece in The Guardian, and many of them are, well, troubling. To put it mildly.

Here’s a small sampling of some of the comments:

“Oh for pity’s sake, must everything be offensive? Political Correctness gone wild.”

“WHAT aboriginal community in the U.S. ? This belief in the U.S. is dead. The only complainers are the very few who were conquered. Conquering is not new to any culture. If the Native Americans weren’t so busy trying to conquer each other, they might have been able to keep more of their land. It seems every culture grew from conquering over a culture for whatever reasons they had. The system is world wide. Just because we finally gave it a name doesn’t mean we alone own it.”

“OMG, and the shirt is black too, with white text. We must read everything into this!”

What I find truly annoying it that creating a fuss over this sort of trivial nonsense only makes it that much harder to battle genuine racism … Instead of fighting actual racists, they find it easier to make normal people, without racists tendencies, to tread on eggshells around minorities.

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.”

I think that a lot of these responses are knee-jerk reactions that come from a place of fear. We see something like the Manifest Destiny tee, and we don’t see a problem with it. Then someone tells us that it’s racist, and our reaction falls into one of the following categories:

1. We accept that it’s racist, and work to understand the how and why of it

2. We deny that it’s racist, and then defend that denial

I think that a lot of people choose the latter because accepting that the t-shirt is racist, and knowing that they didn’t initially understand why, means that they are racist. And they’re not racist! They have friends who are people of colour! They would never do/say/think anything racist! So, logically, if they are not racist, then the shirt must not be, either.

For those of you who are afraid of being racist, I’m going to tell you something that will maybe sort of let you off the hook:

If you are white, you are racist.

To be clear, for the purposes of this post I’m defining racism as prejudice plus power. In the western world, in this specific time in history, only white people can be racist. People of colour can certainly be prejudiced against those of other ethnicities, but they can’t be racist because they don’t have the societal power to enforce those prejudices.

Look, it’s not your fault that you’re racist; you’re probably a really nice person and yes, I do believe you when you tell me that you have friends of many different ethnicities. You grew up in a world where you were immersed in white privilege, and that privilege was constantly being reinforced by your education, the media and society in general. You didn’t ask for that privilege; it was handed to you whether you wanted it or not. Given these circumstances, you can’t help being racist.

But believe me when I tell you that you are racist. I am racist. We need to acknowledge and accept this before we move forward.

That fact being established, I want to be really clear on something: it is not for white people to say what is and isn’t racist. It’s not our place to roll our eyes and say, Really, do I have to be offended by everything now?

I’m not saying that there is never any overreaction when it comes to racial issues. What I am saying is, if a person of colour tells you that something is racist, give them the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t understand why it’s racist, ask them to help you understand. If the explanation makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why it makes you uncomfortable.

And for the record, I would rather overreact to something than under-react to it. I would prefer to be labeled hysterical than labeled an apologist. I would rather be hated for being outspoken than look back on a a terrible event and feel like I could have done something if only I’d had the courage to open my mouth.

So remember earlier, when I told you that I was sort of letting you off the hook? Well, here’s the part where it turns out that I’m not letting you off the hook at all. Yes, you are a good person. No, you can’t help being racist. What matters now is what you do with this information; what matters is whether or not you remain blind to the fact that you are subject to prejudices against people of colour, or whether you accept it and say, okay, what do I do now?

To say stuff like, “… creating a fuss over this sort of trivial nonsense only makes it that much harder to battle genuine racism”, is to remain wilfully blind to your own racism. It’s to see racism as a series of overtly cruel acts perpetrated by other people, and not as an inherent part of the invisible systems we all participate in that benefit white people.

To make comments to the effect that what was done to the Aboriginal peoples in North America is ancient history, and that “conquering” is just a normal part of civilization, is to remain wilfully ignorant to the truth of what happened, and how it’s still happening today.

To say that we live in a society where political correctness has gone overboard and to dismiss the cries of racism from people of colour as a gross overreaction is to assert that it is, in fact, up to white people to decide what is and isn’t racist. It’s saying that people of colour aren’t smart enough to know what true racism is, or that all they want is our pity or our land or our money. It’s perpetuating the idea that only white people know what is best, and it’s insinuating that it would be wrong or even dangerous to have people of colour in positions of power where their poor judgment and conniving ways could have a disastrous effect on everyone.

Okay. What do we do now?

I’m going to say something that might seem really scary, but here it is:

Let people of colour have a voice. Seriously listen to what they have to say. When what they say frightens and confuses you, don’t shut them out. Keep listening. Be willing to work with them; be willing to have them tell you that you’re wrong. Spend every moment of every day fighting against your prejudices. When you want to leave a comment like the ones above on an online article, take a moment before you hit the reply button and think, what am I really saying here?

It’s hard, I know. Many (most?) of us grew up in an era where overt racism was very much frowned upon, but the underlying racist structure of society was never talked about. We grew up with books and television shows and movies that were racist, although we didn’t know that at the time, and it can be difficult to cherish the memories of those things while at the same time admitting that they were problematic. We grew up knowing that racism was so wrong, which means admitting that we’re racist makes us feel like monsters.

The hardest thing of all is accepting that society has to change, because why would we want to change things when everything is set up to benefit us? What motivation is there to have anything be different from the way it is?

Well, for one thing, I want Theo to grow up in a better world than I did; I don’t want him to have to have the same prejudices I do. I want to stop feeling guilty just because my skin is white. I want to look at someone and see who they are, instead of first noticing their race.

Most of all, I want to live in a world where everyone is equal. Yes, I know that people will always be born into different socioeconomic circumstances; yes, I understand that some people will always have to struggle more than others just to achieve the same thing. But that struggle should never, ever be tied to a person’s skin colour. A person should not be set up to fail from the very beginning just because they’re not white.

And if you don’t understand that, then I don’t know what to say.

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A Few Small Things

16 Oct

Hey y’all, here are a few things I wanted to share with you today:

1. Here is a post about women in geek culture that I wrote for Shameless Magazine’s blog. I am really proud of it! I am also super stoked that I had the chance to write it, and want to give Shameless Magazine a thousand smooches for publishing my stuff. If you want to read about misogyny, racism, and the lack of representation of queer and trans folks in geek culture, you should check it out. If you want to read about my love for Wil Wheaton, you should DOUBLE check it out.

OMGGGGGG IMAGINE IF WIL WHEATON EVER READ IT, I WOULD DIIIIIEEEEEE.

Hi, Wil Wheaton, call me, okay?

2. It looks like The Gap has pulled the Manifest Destiny shirt, and offered this lukewarm non-apology:

They tweeted something very similar yesterday, but it looks like the tweet has been removed.

I would really love for them to handle this the way Paul Frank handled the recent outcry over their racist and offensive fashion show, and I’m still hopeful that they might, but it’s looking less and less likely.

One of my favourite parts of Paul Frank’s response is that they said they like to collaborate with an Aboriginal artist on future designs and that the profits from that collaboration would be donated to an Aboriginal cause. How amazing would it be if The Gap could follow their lead?

3. My Manifest Destiny post was featured on BlogHer! It’s on the front page of the site, and it feels bananas to load the page and see something I wrote front and centre. I feel super flattered that they featured it!

4. You should really check out my friend L’s response to Gap’s Manifest Destiny debacle over at her blog, Life In Pint-Sized Form. Her grandfather is a full-blood Chippewa, and she brings a fantastic perspective to this issue. Reading what she wrote literally gave me chills.

5. Artist Gregg Deal, who is Aboriginal and a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, created this image in response to Manifest Destiny shirt:

I love these designs because they show so clearly the subtext behind the term Manifest Destiny, a subtext that many people seem hesitant to acknowledge. Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? I also love that he used humour to address the racism of Gap’s design, because I think that humour can be a super important weapon against all forms of intolerance.

5. October 15th was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. Two of my friends wrote very movingly about their experiences with miscarriage and stillbirth, and I wanted to share their posts with you. The first is from my friend Jodi, who blogs over at Mama To Bean and whose son Joel was stillborn last year – you can read her reflections on what this day means to her here.

The second post comes from The Yellow Blanket, which is written anonymously by a woman who has suffered multiple unexplained pregnancy losses. She writes incredibly movingly about her losses, and what her pregnancies have meant to her.

If you plan on reading these posts, I would suggest that you break out the kleenex.

6. A lot of the stuff in this post has been pretty heavy. If you need something to lift your spirits after all this profound grief/righteous indignation/sadness that you are not, in fact, married to Wil Wheaton, then I highly recommend The Hairpin’s Texts From Little Women. I was reading this in the yoga studio while there was a class going on, and I was trying SO HARD to stifle my laughter because, well, Jo March. God I love Jo March.

Here’s a sample – the italicized text is Jo March, and the plain text is Meg March:

I hope you realize you’re breaking up the family 

I really wish you wouldn’t see things that way

a broken home 
that’s what I come from now 
a broken home

that’s not what they call it when your sister gets married

then why does it feel broken, Meg
why does it feel broken
this is the worst thing 
that has ever happened 
to anyone 
since Father died 

Father didn’t die, Jo!
he’s only been wounded!

oh 
didn’t he? 
for some reason I thought he’d died 

no
he’ll be home in a few weeks
Ah

do you suppose he’s going to want his old greatcoat 
and riding boots 
and shaving things 
and top hat
when he gets back? 

I expect that he will

HANG EVERYTHING” 

Hang everything indeed.

Mark McNairy, I Can’t Even

15 Oct

Mark McNairy, the man who designed the Manifest Destiny shirt for The Gap, tweeted the following on Saturday evening:

(He has since deleted the tweet, but fortunately a few people were able to get screen grabs)

When I saw this, I turned to Matt and said, He must not know what Manifest Destiny means.

I mean, he can’t know, right? There is no way that I can live in a world where a white American dude just posted publicly on the internet that the systematic oppression, destruction and abuse of North American Aboriginal peoples happened because white people are the FITTEST. I can’t possibly live in that world.

See, this is where my own wilful ignorance kicks in. When writing about issues like this, I try really, really hard to be fair and objective. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and do my best to offer an unbiased, balanced perspective on issues that trigger big emotions in me. I tend to assume that everyone has good intentions, but they just get bogged down by misuse of language, or lack of information. When someone says something as glaringly racist and offensive as the above, my brain just can’t process the fact that they might be serious.

What does he even mean by fittest, anyway? Is he referring to the Aboriginal peoples’ lack of immunity to diseases such as smallpox that were endemic in most European populations? Does he mean the fact that said members of the European population had guns when they arrived in North America while the indigenous peoples didn’t? Does he think that by swaggering onto this continent and declaring everything they saw as theirs, our colonial ancestors are somehow more fit? Does he think that the North American Aboriginal peoples are where they are today because they just haven’t worked hard enough?

If that last one is the case, I would like to paraphrase the first sentence of this article: If wealth and being  was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, the members of the First Nations populations would be millionaires.

What I want to do right now is call this McNairy fellow up and ask him if he’s aware of what he’s saying, and if he’s thought about what the fallout from his careless remarks might be. I want to point out that he owns his own (eponymous) business, and, as an ambassador for this brand, he needs to be aware that everything he says will have an impact on his business’ success. I want to reach through the phone, grab him by the shoulders and yell, What the hell were you thinking?

Of course, the questions that I really want to ask are the ones whose answers I’m not sure I can handle

What I need to know the most is whether Mark McNairy cares about how hurtful his remarks were. I need to know if he’s thought about what it would be like to grow up in the grinding poverty and inhumane living conditions of many of the First Nations’ reserves, only to be told by a white man that you are there, on that reserve, because of survival of the fittest. I need to know if he’s thought about what it would be like to see the name of the philosophy that led to the attempted genocide of your people splashed across a t-shirt, and then see the man responsible for that  shirt taking to Twitter to defend it. I need to know if he’s ever thought about anything outside of his existence as a privileged white man.

I am afraid to know what McNairy’s responses would be to these questions. Afraid, yes, but still brave enough to hear them. Because I will never be able to overcome my own wilful ignorance, my smiling, apologetic naïveté until I am forced to look at the naked truth.

I can’t possibly live in a world where people say things like this, except that I do.

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