Racial inequality not a laughing matter

However, the saying goes: a picture is worth a thousand words. Even after the company recalled their T-shirts, supposedly because the Asian American community objected, an employee at Abercrombie and Fitch walked out of the door wearing one of the recalled T-shirts during the rally in Boston protesting the shirts on Saturday. Abercrombie claims that they have already apologized by having their public relations man utter a few words. Yet, their employee was wearing the racist shirt. While the employee has the right to wear whatever he wants to wear, the fact that he, as a representative of Abercrombie, wore the shirt in the middle of the protest proves that the company has not educated their employees to respect the Asian American community.

It is unacceptable, especially for a mainstream “American” clothing company, to propagate stereotypes that reach back hundreds of years. The caricatures of Chinese laundrymen on the Wong Brothers T-shirts belittle and commodify the history of the Asian American community-a footnoted history of which most Americans are uneducated.

In their defense, Abercrombie said that they make fun of other groups, too. The question is, have the rest of these groups to which they refer, such as the taxi drivers, been systematically excluded from immigration, interracial marriage and testimony in court? No. These comparisons trivialize our history.

Most history textbooks allot a sentence to the Chinese Exclusion Act. About a hundred pages later, another paragraph about Japanese internment will show up in the book. Many colleges have not established Asian Pacific American studies programs. Without a good understanding and knowledge of Asian American history from high school and even college, many Americans encounter Asian American culture primarily through the images that mainstream companies in the United States spread. Similar to images used to portray the Japanese during World War II, the images on the T-shirts encourage a misunderstanding of Asian Americans. It becomes easy to accept generalized images of a group of people and to believe them as fact when the real history is not known.

Just because it is suddenly trendy to have Asian accessories does not make it right for Abercrombie and Fitch to exploit Asian Americans in order to push their product. The reason for the continued protest from the community is simple: it is not enough for Abercrombie and Fitch to pull the offensive shirts off the shelf. The point is, they should not have been there in the first place.

The company must officially apologize for the fact that they produced racist shirts and not just ask their hired public relations man to say that he’s “very very very sorry” for offending people. Michael Jeffries, the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch must issue a formal apology to the Asian Pacific American community. In addition, it is obvious that they need to make changes within the company to increase sensitivity to Asian Pacific American issues, made most apparent when Hampton Carney, the Abercrombie and Fitch public relations representative, said that the company did not realize that these shirts would be offensive to Asians. In fact, he said that the company thought that Asians would find these shirts funny.

What I find laughable is Carney’s statement. Is it really true that the company did not know that Asian Americans would be offended? The immediate reaction from almost every person I have talked to about these shirts is, “What were they thinking?” How is it possible that multiple levels of management in a top clothing company approved the design of these shirts without realizing that they might be offensive to Asian Americans? Did they think that they could make profits off these racist shirts and we would sit quietly and say nothing?

So far, student groups across the country have organized rallies at the stores and encouraged consumers to boycott Abercrombie and Fitch until they meet the set of national student demands. This is far from just an Asian American issue. For example, Saturday’s intercollegiate protest in Boston drew a multiracial crowd of over 150 protesters and bystanders with signs that included, “I’m not Asian, but I know racism when I see it.” Abercrombie’s audacity to produce and sell these racist T-shirts affects everyone. By working together, we can ensure that companies like Abercrombie do not cheapen any of our histories and cultures “just for laughs.”