April 30, 2002

C.U. Student Stands Up to A&F T-Shirts

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In response to the controversy over Abercrombie and Fitch’s new line of T-shirts displaying Asian images and slogans, a group of approximately 50 college students gathered at New York City’s Times Square in protest last Friday.

Fred Nguyen ’04 participated in this demonstration with students from other colleges including Barnard College, Columbia University and Yale University.

Prior to the rally in Times Square, the protestors grouped in preparation around 1 p.m. at the Office of Asian Venue. They organized their picket signs and received instructions concerning the legal measures that govern a protest.

After a brief pep talk, the students began their rally at 1:30 p.m. They attempted to carry out their demonstration in front of the MTV headquarters, right below the studio windows of Total Request Live (TRL). Many of the protesters hoped this kind of exposure would gain media coverage and promote the spreading of their cause.

However, the police forced them to evacuate that area and transferred the protest to the other side of the street — right across from the studios. The students continued to raise their signs and hand out flyers to spectators for approximately five more hours.

Later on in the evening, the group of protestors relocated their demonstration to the Abercrombie and Fitch store on South Seaport Street, where they resumed further protests.

During the protest, people also signed a petition. The protesters succeeded in getting about 1000 signatures for their petition for this apology.

“Our main goal was for Abercrombie and Fitch to extend a public apology,” said Nguyen.

For the past couple of weeks, Abercrombie and Fitch’s release of T-shirts using Asian images and marketing slogans has sparked great controversy across the nation. One such T-shirt portrayed two Chinese men with triangular hats who owned a laundry service. Underneath the images the phrase “Two Wongs Can Make It White” was printed. Phrases seen on other shirts include “Buddha Bash: Get Your Buddha On the Floor” and “Pizza Dojo. Eat In or Wok Out.”

“Some people don’t realize the implications of these T-shirts,” said Bryant Tow ’05. “This apparent elevation of racial stereotypes just perpetuates misconceptions among the ignorant and disgusts the open-minded. What’s truly upsetting is that Abercrombie and Fitch actually thought that these T-shirts would be embraced, especially among the Asian American population. It just shows how far we still need to go.”

Abercrombie and Fitch released these shirts around April 15 and after the stir that the T-shirts caused, withdrew them around April 19. Abercrombie and Fitch has managed to pull approximately 85 to 90 percent of the shirts from store shelves.

The demand for these shirts dramatically increased after consumers heard of the controversy. Some people who procured the shirts before their recall have tried to sell them online at ebay.com for approximately $250 to 300 each. However, eBay is working in conjunction with Abercrombie and Fitch in an attempt to take these items off of the web site as soon as they are posted for sale.

In addition, Abercrombie and Fitch’s most recent catalog includes a dozen more variations of these images and slogans not found online or in stores.

Officials at Abercrombie and Fitch have not released a statement regarding the situation, and when contacted via telephone, Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO Michael Jefferis declined to comment on the controversy.

“I think that their P.R. firm is using humor as an excuse,” said Nguyen. “[Abercrombie and Fitch] is a large corporation and must have a large marketing division. I am surprised that the T-shirts got filtered through and that such poor research was done in regards to the consequences of the promotion of these slogans.”

Nguyen also commented on the diversity of the protesters.

“We had a very multicultural group of protestors. We also wanted people to know that it is not only the Asian Americans who find this kind of derision offensive,” said Nguyen.

Sam Coffin ’05 also expressed that he found the T-shirts offensive.

“I think the shirts are racist, mainly because they’re made by a company that has mostly white, blond-haired, blue-eyed models,” said Coffin. “I also think it’s a horrible way to make money.”

Some of Cornell’s Asian American student organizations such as the Chinese Student Association (CSA) and the Asian Pacific Americans for Action (APAA) have worked to inform their members and other students about the shirts. However, no major active political action was taken.

“We were so busy with the events of Asian American Heritage Week that we didn’t get a chance to organize any political effort in response to the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy,” said Lisa Wang ’02, president of APAA. “We tried to inform others of the situation, but by the time we could do anything, it was too late. They had already withdrawn the shirts.”

“It is ironic that the shirts came out a few days before Asian American Heritage Week,” said Elizabeth Burdick ’02. “Perhaps it was poor planning on [Abercrombie and Fitch’s] part, especially since awareness regarding these issues are heightened during this time.”

Although many felt that these shirts were offensive, others did not take them as serious insults.

“Personally, I’m not that offended by racist comments because I’m half white and half Asian so I’ve been raised with influences from both cultures,” said Audrey Bowen ’05. “When I first saw it, I thought that it was really funny. I think it’s great that people with strong beliefs can stand up for what they believe in, and I do see how these slogans can be insulting. However, they don’t bother me, and I can usually laugh these things off.”

Archived article by Jennifer Chen