Sense and Sensitivity


Michael Bronski 

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. 

It’s
difficult to see how Abercrombie & Fitch—a clothier known
for having its finger on the pulse of the wide, but shallow, pool
of culturally hip consumers—could 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&F’s 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 company’s 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. “It’s
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, Picasso’s 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 D’Souza,
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 Stern’s being the most famous—used
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 hasn’t
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”
(“It’s 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 D’Souza (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 “Don’t
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 Lee’s 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. Patrick’s 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, isn’t 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, we’ve rarely discussed such issues openly, honestly,
and civilly. To be sure, there are exceptions to that rule, such
as Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger, an extraordinary explication
of the social and political uses of that most contentious of words
and Spike Lee’s 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 it’s just a joke. That assertion trivial- izes
the issue and willfully ignores the fact that all jokes mask serious
meaning. 

Abercrombie
& Fitch’s willingness to admit a mistake—that it overstepped
an important boundary and that it should have taken people’s
feelings into consideration—could 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.