Focus attention on stereotypes, not racism
The discourse among Asian-American college students regarding the Abercrombie & Fitch graphic T-shirts concerns the necessity to distinguish whether the shirts constitute racism. The consensus seems to be that the shirts, with slogans such as, "Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White," next to caricatures of slant-eyed Asians with conical hats, symbolize racism. Activists are demanding that Abercrombie & Fitch make a sincere apology by acknowledging that the shirts are racist, rather than just pulling them from the shelves.
If the goal of these Asian-American students is to educate, they are expending their energy on action that does little to help Americans understand why the shirts are offensive. The task of utmost importance for Asian-American students is to explain the offensive nature of the stereotypes embodied by the caricatures, rather than claiming their racist nature, which only kindles confusion among all Americans.
This is my attempt to elucidate the confusion. I propose that we focus our attention on the stereotypes behind the adornments before making vehement charges of racism. An explication of what these stereotypes implicate is a more effective method of generating awareness.
Abercrombie & Fitch decided to pull the shirts off shelves when an overwhelming number of college students (both Asian Americans as well as non-Asian Americans) expressed indignation. In the aftermath, however, many still wonder why these shirts sparked so much anger. Some even suggest that Asian Americans should lighten up because the stereotypes portrayed by the shirts are an accurate characterization of many Asian Americans and provide a good laugh.
Thomas D. Lennox, Abercrombie & Fitch's senior manager of investor relations and corporate communications, said, "It's not, and never has been, our intention to offend anyone. These T-shirts were designed with the sole purpose of adding humor and levity to our fashion line."
The company expected its market to embrace the designs and hoped the release of the new T-shirt line would increase sales to Asian Americans, a group with an estimated purchasing power of over $250 billion.
But Abercrombie and Fitch overlooked something rather significant:
the message sent by the shirts. Quite simply, they mock Asian Americans'
physical features and pronunciation of English. Stereotypes like these
have been used in the past to underscore Asian Americans' nature as "foreign";
not true members of American society. This perception was what led to
the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during
World War II. Slant-eyed caricatures of Laundromat workers speaking broken
English shadows an entire group of people and minimizes their individuality
and personal identity.
Many Asian-American parents are well-educated doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Yet most have overcome significant hardships in the initial stages of their lives as residents of America. Thus, to many Asian Americans, shirts containing "lighthearted" messages that poke fun at the difficult realities of life do not provide any sort of humor. It trivializes their efforts to succeed through avenues of hard work.
This incident should exasperate all Americans, not just Asian Americans. The T-shirts contribute to the perpetuation of stereotypes that have no place in society. They undermine the contributions Asian Americans have made in the United States, and indirectly preserve the idea that all Asian Americans are slant-eyed foreigners that speak broken English.
Are these shirts racist? Opinions vary, even within the diverse Asian-American community. However, we can all agree that Abercrombie & Fitch has committed a disservice to Asian Americans by producing shirts that display stereotypes. Stereotypes are dangerous, serving as the root cause of prejudice and leading to racism. Heightened awareness of these stereotypes, and recent activism like the actions of Asian-American students, will, hopefully, help to obviate racism.