Volume , Number 0
Silja j.a. Talvi
Silja j.a. Talvi
Stephen R. Shalom
Nonviolence Versus Capitalism
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Trajectory of Change
Jan knippers Black
Eleanor J. Bader
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Sense and Sensitivity
Earlier this spring, in its nationwide chain of 311 stores, Abercrombie & Fitch began selling T-shirts featuring slant-eyed, coolie-hatted caricatures of Asian-American men. The humor teetered between burlesque and bathroom. The T-shirts carried aphorisms, such as Wong Brothers Laundry Service; Two Wongs Can Make It White; and Wok-N-Bowl, Let The Good Times Roll.
These kinds of images of Asian-Americans thrived in the late 1800s and persisted in various forms, from Charlie Chan movies to TV series featuring oriental houseboys, until the 1960s. For at least 40 years, such stereotyping has been widely viewed as racist and offensive.
Its difficult to see how Abercrombie & Fitcha clothier known for having its finger on the pulse of the wide, but shallow, pool of culturally hip consumerscould have thought these T-shirts, which retailed for $24.95, would sell. In remarks quoted widely in press reports, company spokesperson Hampton Carney, through Paul Wilmot Communications, A&Fs public-relations firm, said, We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt.
But shortly after the shirts appeared on store shelves, Asian- American students at Stanford University protested the companys decision to sell the offending garments. The protests were quickly replicated on campuses nationwide. By April 18, just days after the shirts appearance in some A&F stores, the company pulled the shirts from shelves as well as from its website. We are very, very, very sorry, company spokesperson Carney told the media. Its never been our intention to offend anyone. These graphic T-shirts were designed with the sole purpose of adding humor and levity to our fashion line.
As far as culture war battles go, this was a minor skirmish. But as a cultural moment it may herald a new level of discussion about popular culture politics. For many, the question of whether the Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts are racist or insensitive is a no-brainer.
Yet in the early 1990s, a cultural critic like Camille Paglia might have rushed to the web pages of Salon and launched a defense of the shirts, claiming that they were the most recent artifacts in a long, rich tradition of racist caricatures that include Egyptian wall paintings, Picassos use of African motifs, and Mammy cookie jars.
Paglia was not alone in her fury against political correctness (PC). During those same years, Katie Roiphe, author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism made a career of claiming that feminists made too big a deal of sexual assault and rape. Dinesh DSouza, a founder of the conservative Dartmouth Review and author of Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, complained that traditional Western culture and ideas were being driven from universities. Various shock-radio talk shows Howard Sterns being the most famousused racial, sexual, and ethnic stereotypes to both rile and amuse their listeners. The anti-PC backlash embodied a political and cultural response to many years of expecting people to be sensitive to the rights and feelings of a host of minorities. This sensitivity, nurtured in the liberation movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, had, by the Reagan years, run into a wall of empathy fatigue and overt antagonism.
If nothing else, the PC backlash sought to render social inequalities negligible. This charming period in American social relations saw anti-feminists declaiming, Well, if they all want equality, why should I give up my seat to a pregnant woman on the bus? and Republicans publicly ignoring statistics attributing an explosion of single motherhood among young African-American women to intractable poverty, so as not to ruffle their they-just-want-to-have- kids-to-become-welfare-cheats analysis. Complicated, honest, and empathetic discussion of these issues was squelched.
Indeed, the language used by those complaining of political correctness run amok, to use a well-worn phrase from the culture wars, tried to turn the tables: they felt oppressed by political correctness. Rush Limbaugh complained endlessly about his archenemies, the feminazis, and Paglia offhandedly referred to leftist nazis. Howard Stern had a wide array of insults for people who found his humor offensive (typical remark: I bet she hasnt gotten laid much lately).
It is no accident that so much of the anti-PC backlash centered on higher education and American intellectual life. Michelle Malkin, in her screed against the Abercrombie & Fitch protesters, claimed that they had learned their tactics from their professors (Its Ethnic Extortionism 101). Paglia, a tenured professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, blamed PC on postmodern theories and French intellectuals. Limbaugh, a millionaire, claimed to speak for the common man against know-it-all intellectuals.
Even privileged Ivy Leaguers like Roiphe (Harvard) and DSouza (Dartmouth) railed against new intellectual constructs and forms of thinking that had supplemented more traditional ones. The heart of the anti-PC backlash was profoundly anti-intellectual. The charge Dont be so PC generally means, as Howard Stern so beautifully puts it, Oh, shut up.
It was a stroke of genius for the right to appropriate the term political correctness (which had been used in a self-deprecating way by progressives for years) to dismiss minorities concerns as a form of fascistic social-thought control. It was a one-size-fits-all put-down that could be applied as easily to Spike Lees movies as to a speech by a moderate feminist like Gloria Steinem or to basic constitutional arguments for anti- gay-discrimination bills.
Yet many fights over political correctness have focused on important and complicated issues, such as speech codes on college campuses; freedom-of-association issues, such as whom the Boy Scouts or the organizers of St. Patricks Day parades get to exclude; and constitutional questions concerning how far free speech can go before it becomes hate speech or incites violence.
Even all-American projects like boycotts have come under scrutiny, as when both right- and left-wingers debated the appropriateness of conservative Christians economic boycott of the TV show Ellen or liberals boycott of the Dr. Laura show. In the face of political disagreement, isnt it best to start public conversations about the meaning of ideas like democracy, citizenship, and freedom, rather then yelling nazi at people with whom you disagree?
It would be a grievous mistake to downplay the importance of these cultural debates. The anti-PC backlash was a deeply felt response to changes taking place so quickly that they were bound to encounter resistance. In the constitutional democracy under which we live, there is an ongoing struggle to balance First Amendment rights to free speech with efforts to sustain civil society. Freedom of expression and cultural sensitivity are often at odds, whether the issue involves the freedom to burn a cross in a black neighborhood; the rights of Nazis to march in predominantly Jewish Skokie, Illinois; the rights of anti-abortion groups to picket abortion clinics and place death-target lists of physicians who perform abortions on their web pages; or the rights of people to use racial or homophobic slurs on the airwaves. Or, for that matter, on T-shirts.
As a culture, weve rarely discussed such issues openly, honestly, and civilly. To be sure, there are exceptions to that rule, such as Randall Kennedys book Nigger, an extraordinary explication of the social and political uses of that most contentious of words and Spike Lees film Bamboozled, a shocking and painfully entertaining history of racist images in popular culture.
But what has been clear throughout the last 15 years is that the lines between freedom and respect, and honest expression and hurtful utterance, become blurred when people vindicate speech that others find painful by claiming its just a joke. That assertion trivial- izes the issue and willfully ignores the fact that all jokes mask serious meaning.
Abercrombie & Fitchs willingness to admit a mistakethat it overstepped an important boundary and that it should have taken peoples feelings into considerationcould signal a shift in a culture marked by diminished empathy and heightened defensiveness. Maybe this is a step in the right direction, away from political correctness and its dissenters and toward really looking at how people try to live their lives with both humor and dignity. Z
Michael Bronski is an author and activist. His articles have appeared in the Village Voice, the Boston Globe, Utne Reader, and the Los Angeles Times. He has been a regular contributor to Z since 1988.