This Open Letter is going to be a two-parter. First from my wife – a Black, Jamaican-Canadian woman. Second, from me, a Caucasian Canadian woman.
Refinery 29 featured an article about the backlash and controversy over Gap Kids’ new athletic line; people were outraged and divided over interpretations of one image in particular. More info can be found in This article. By way of response, I asked my wife to consider her analysis of the issue, then offer my own for juxtaposition.
My wife shared a post with me the other day about the reaction to Gap’s new ad campaign. A campaign that’s in partnership with Ellen DeGeneres’ lifestyle brand ED. I instantly knew what the article was about having seen articles pop up on my social media feed days before touting “Racist Gap Ad Receives Backlash.” I scanned those previous articles not thinking too much into what people were saying about the campaign.
Le Petit Cirque, an all-girls pre-teen dance group, was featured in various fun, acrobatic poses. What was supposed to be a cute and empowering message promoting Gap’s athletic ware for kids instead drew backlash when in one image the only black girl featured was used as an “armrest” by an older troupe member, who yes, is white. From offensive examples of the ways in which black women and girls are undermined and dehumanized in the media to others arguing that the response to the ad is a wild over-exaggeration – there was lots to consider in between those two reactions.
My reaction? As a mixed, Jamaican, queer woman who works in media and LOVES to call out the lack of diversity in any situation, I found the pose to be pretty harmless and thought it’s a shame these four little girls are caught up in the crosshairs. After reading the Refinery article Al sent, I took a closer look. First, I would ask people to look at Gap’s history of promoting their kids athletic line.
2016 Gap Ad Campaign 2015 Gap Ad Campaign
Gap’s 2015 ad campaign pretty much mimic’s the 2016 campaign but the roles are reversed. Does this picture make the 2016 campaign okay though? When there’s so few powerful and positive representations of black women and girls in media (yes, things are getting better, all hail Beyoncé and Shonda Rhimes), it’s unsurprising to me that the photo would touch a nerve. I’m lucky to work and live in an environment where I don’t experience racism overtly. For those people who aren’t as lucky as I am, I can see how -when looking at the 2016 campaign picture and even watching the Gap videos – I’d question the intention or message it’s sending. I also understand the “wild over-exaggeration” argument when there’s so many other problems that could be seen as more important.
At the end of the day, it’s a complicated issue and one that will come up time and again and lead to debates over the representation of people of colour whether in film (#oscarssowhite), television, advertising, sports, etc.. Are more people of colour needed in positions of power in media and advertising? OF COURSE. Will that change debates like this happening? Here’s to hoping.
I wanted to let my wife speak first; letting people speak for themselves and being willing to listen are a few of the things that help dialogues unfold about equity. That being said, I penned my own thoughts before hearing hers, wanting to get an unfiltered perspective.
Question: How far is too far?
I recognize, even as I write this, that what I am asking will be/may be met with skepticism.
Whenever you feel the need to preface something with ‘my wife is black/my friends are black’ or to list your own marginal identity, like it’s a pass to get into the equity conversation, you’re probably walking on thin ice. That being said, I feel like if we aren’t able to have conversations about race, including diverse opinions, and considering each others’ perspectives, we aren’t really going to make progress. Ever.
You can’t solve racism by convincing marginalized people that racism has a negative impact on them; you need to convince an ignorant majority that racism is real and has pervasive, negative effects, even when it’s not intentional. Becoming more aware is a potential step to stopping inadvertent, latent racism.
I often get into these discussions with my wife and find that sometimes we’re not on the same page. I have an academic background in equity studies and am a louder person, comparatively. I go with my gut, but also try to consider all the potential interpretations. I can, admittedly, be somewhat detached in my dissection of issues when I go into ‘analysis’ mode; this is a strange contrast to my bleeding-heart, empathetic side. I feel everything, but I’m critical of my own emotional responses, because I know they are subjective.
Are these Gap images ‘offensive’ and are they ‘racist’? The answer might be different depending on these two terms.
At any rate, the most important thing is to recognize that if someone feels that something is racist – it’s racist. Maybe not blatantly, or intentionally, but impact is more important than intention. I may not mean to hurt someone, but if I do it, amends need to be made.
When we are creating media and representing race, what is permissible? How can we avoid an accusation of bias or unintentionally negative messaging, even when well- intentioned ?
These ads could definitely be argued as ‘racist’. But someone could also argue that sitting on the couch with my wife watching Netflix, feet stretched out across her lap, is also racist. Except we love and respect each other. Does that matter?
At what point is our own baggage and experience, subjectively and culturally, going to shape our view of things? Is it fair for us to load all of our negative and positive connotations onto and attribute our views to a creative team we’ve never met?
If the assumption is that the creators should have ‘considered the impact on black girls’ … what do we actually know about the real model in this shot, or the team who created the image? If we assume that the team who created the ad has no diversity on it, aren’t we presuming that no women of colour are not represented behind the scenes, when it’s entirely possible that a diverse group saw this (and the other pictures) thought, “goodness, these girls look strong and confident and capable and adorable.” Job well done!
Are we actually disempowering the very subject we are seeking to liberate by assuming she should feel ‘less than’ based simply on one, of many, poses in an ad campaign? I wonder, how these young girls will/do feel about being featured in an ad campaign that aims to celebrate their female talent and awesomeness … and instead they have singled out one member, based on her race, insinuating that she is not wholly part of the team, that one pose causes the world to see her as separate from her troupe-mates, foisting society’s biases onto her, when for all we know they have an amazingly supportive camaraderie and mutual respect. There are many ways to interpret the pose and one might be that the ‘rock’ of this group, small but mighty, is the girl in the ‘love’ t-shirt. She is central to the group and stares down the camera. Why do we assume that the pre-teen in the pose beside her must be ‘dominating’ or subjugating her? To read into the pose without the models’ consent and without allowing them to have a voice is, perhaps, disrespectful; revealing more about US than them. Or maybe I’m just being naive. We have superimposed power relationships onto what may be perfectly harmonious relationships.
Is our take on the image more harmful to this young girl than the pose itself? It’s one thing to say it “could” be taken this way, it’s another to say it is this way.
Our interpretation of an image, like Oscar Wilde argues, may have more to do with us and our views than the image-maker; the artist reveals the spectator, Wilde claims, more so than the artist. If we consider the power of the viewer to interpret an image, is there any image that includes multiple figures that is not, in some way, about power or an interpretation of it?
For example, you can make a case for pretty much any image: Below you have an image of two friends, cheerfully playing around…or is this an insidious image with a subtext about one woman’s need to be carried by her peer because (we argue) she is incapable of getting there on her own two feet?
Remember, this debate was sparked by: This article.
If this image (above) featured a gorgeous black model, perhaps we might claim that she is being put behind the lens/telescope because space in front of the camera is still being withheld from her. She will only have a supporting role. Which is often, sadly, unfairly the case. But not necessarily in THIS example.
Ellen Degeneres is, I’d argue, one of the nicest, most inclusive white ladies on the planet. She celebrates the small and large victories of icons and underdogs, laughing at herself and using her celebrity (hard won after facing her own public battle for acceptance for her own marginalized identity) to make space for others who deserve a chance to shine. I’m not saying she ‘can’t’ be racist; but must she be, simply by virtue of her skin colour? Looking at the pattern of behaviour, context, awareness and track record may help to illuminate whether this should bother us, even if it ‘could’.
Let’s take a few more examples, just to belabour the point: maybe the only safe way to photograph a subject is in isolation? But there is also a claim that isolation itself is ostracizing. Here, the child is being singled out. Left out. Put to the margins. Or worse, we’re preparing him for super-racist, police profiling and replicating a toddler-version of a mug shot. This adorable kid deserves better than the worst possible stereotypes. Offering this kid just one option of how we interpret him is a huge injustice. It reminds me of “The Danger of A Single Story.” (watch an amazing speaker and author sum it up!)
If someone is faced forward, it’s a mug shot. If someone is getting a piggy back ride, it might be implying that they require a leg-up to succeed.
Maybe it’s a manifestation of the white saviour complex. This is a real thing. But real here?
Is this a great shot of a good looking kid, or a stereotype about athletic ability and an affinity for time-pieces? Below, is a comment on … who knows what? Images speak a thousand words, but what if we’re only focused on the negative ones?
In the image below, she is facing away from the camera, because she is faceless and not deserving of attention. Or because… she is doing a cartwheel. Rather than focus on her talent, we are adding a lens to the image that presumes bias and intent. These are not Mapplethorpe images, deliberately infused with salacious power-commentaries. They are cute pictures of cute kids. Hopefully these youngsters haven’t experienced the horrible things, to the same degree, that many of the adults of our world have.
That’s why I wonder what these conversations do to the subjects we are discussing; we’ve taught the girl in the photo that people will see her skin colour first and foremost, not her ability. That it won’t matter how talented and accomplished she is… even when that’s what the campaign is about. If this is true, it breaks my heart. Because I feel like I’m lying when I tell my students that they can accomplish anything and everything they dream about and that the world is getting better and that together, through alliances and critical discourse, they can repair this damaged world and make space for each other to reach their potential. Regardless of who they are, they can acknowledge their privilege and extend a hand to help others rise with them; make a bigger pie, so we can all get a piece.
How can we do better? I’m not, never, advocating for ‘forgetting’ the past. But how can we move forward when even good things, intentionally good, can be bad? If we villainize our champions, who will we have left? The relentless actual villains? But it’s not about not hurting white people’s feelings.
When will a beautiful, diverse group of models, expressing a positive message for gender equality and empowerment, be allowed to pose as they’d like, when EVERY pose could be unpacked and made malicious? When will we get to a point where people are hired based on merit? When will I not worry that people think my identity, my family and marriage are revolting? When will places and spaces be accessible and inclusive, by default?
One tweet said:
If, in the case of these young models, it’s hurting the young girls who may see these images, I have to ask: How much of what we perceive is really ‘damaging’ as opposed to being a reflection of damage already done? We are perpetuating a victimhood that is not necessarily felt by that young woman. As a viewer, this doesn’t negate YOUR feeling, but it doesn’t mean that she should be viewed in this way. She’s not a prop. She is a person.
This narrow focus doesn’t, I worry, contribute to real discussions that promote insight and progress. It makes me angry to imagine that my future children’s image will be decided by others. I’m not ignorant to the systemic issues, but I don’t choose to see a marginal position as powerless.
Most recklessly, I’d like to ask if attacking an ad with such possibility to be read as positive and empowering actually does harm to other, more obvious instances of racism? Does it deflect attention from the urgent, life-changing work that needs to continue gaining attention and traction? Does it make people recoil from efforts to do anti-racist work?
I humbly, openly ask you to tell me your thoughts. Teach me. Help me to understand. See my willingness to learn and to question. Be gentle with me, not to spare my feelings, but to leave me some energy to keep going and growing, to help move this forward. The most important person is my life is a black woman. The most important future people in my life are my own children. I am an ally and am happy to add my clout to the fight, knowing that I’m part of the problem, but also eager to be part of the solution.
Here’s what the company has to say:
“The retailer announced on Monday that the image (one of numerous shots featured in the campaign) would be replaced in response to the deluge of critical feedback.
Le Petite Cirque’s founder, Nathalie Yves Gaulthier, released a statement on Facebook today about the situation. “The child in the ad is not an ‘armrest,’ she’s the other girl’s little sister, they are a very close family,” Gaulthier writes. “The child is a very young Jr member with Le Petite Cirque, a humanitarian cirque company, and therefore a wee shier than the more seasoned older, outgoing girls. Our company is deeply saddened by some people misconstruing this as racist.” Gaulthier also voiced her support of Gap Kids and DeGeneres in the post.
“As a brand with a proud 46-year history of championing diversity and inclusivity, we appreciate the conversation that has taken place and are sorry to anyone we’ve offended,” a Gap spokeswoman said in a statement, according to ABC News. “This GapKids campaign highlights true stories of talented girls who are celebrating creative self-expression and sharing their messages of empowerment. We are replacing the image with a different shot from the campaign, which encourages girls (and boys) everywhere to be themselves and feel pride in what makes them unique.”