|Coming to terms with history
Why stereotypes are never just innocent fun
published June 26, 2002
It was one of those three-day news events where there are charges of racism, protests, a tepid apology and counter charges of political correctness. In April, Abercrombie & Fitch began selling T-shirts with logos that said things such as "Wong Brothers Laundry Service . . . Two Wongs Can Make It White." Hah-hah. I can't say that I found the shirts funny as some people did.
The protests by Asian Americans across the country and negative press forced A&F to pull the shirts from its stores and it's Web site on April 18, a few days after they went on sale. Even though A&F was forced into this seeming act of contrition, the fact is many Asian Americans weren't angered and actually find these shirts funny.
"We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt," A&F spokesman Hampton Carney told the San Francisco Chronicle (my employer), which was one of the first media outlets to inquire about the shirts. Carney went on to say that, "We never single out any one group to poke fun at. We poke fun at everybody, from women to flight attendants to baggage handlers, to football coaches, to Irish Americans to snow skiers. There's really no group we haven't teased."
A&F is either an equal opportunity jokester or equally offensive, depending on your point of view. There is a fine line between what makes ethnic and racial jokes funny or offensive. Something called "Chink-O-Rama" might raise eyebrows, but stand-up comic Karen Riggs' show turns stereotypes around and makes fun of people who make fun of Asians rather than just making fun of Asians.
Stereotypes trace their origins to fact but along the way they are appropriated, twisted and used against their subjects. Asian Americans have been subject to stereotypical images like those in Abercrombie's shirts for their entire history in the United States. Putting the T-shirt incident in this context, it's hard to find much humor in the situation, and the people who did find it funny are ignorant of the past and the origins of these ugly stereotypes.
Coming to terms with history