An informal coalition of Harvard students is planning to protest in front of the Abercrombie & Fitch store this weekend to criticize the chain for carrying several t-shirts caricaturing Asian-Americans.
One of the shirts depicts two slant-eyed men in rice-paddy hats above the slogan, “Wong Brothers Laundry Service—Two Wongs Can Make It White.” Another shows a dancing Buddha with the slogan “Get Your Buddha on the Floor.”
The national chain store, which introduced the graphic shirts last weekend as part of its summer line, apologized yesterday for causing offense. It also recalled the shirts yesterday after receiving more than 60 complaints from around the country Wednesday, said company spokesperson Hampton Carney.
Some of the calls came from students at Stanford and MIT, where anger over the shirts has also led to protests.
Abercrombie had earlier pulled images of the t-shirts from their website, Carney said.
But students are asking for an official statement from the company, saying that pulling the shirts from the chain’s 311 stores is not enough.
“What angers us is not that we haven’t gotten an official apology, but that we’ve gotten no explanation of how this could happen,” said Chris Tam ’03, a member of the Asian American Brotherhood (AAB), which is spearheading the protest.
Students also said the shirts remained on the shelves of the chain’s Harvard Square branch about an hour after the company announced it was pulling them.
Company officials said the shirts were intended to be humorous and to keep in line with the store’s image.
“We apologize that the shirts caused any discomfort,” said Tom Goulet, a customer service representative at the company’s hotline. “It was definitely not our intention. Abercrombie is about humor.”
But many students said the shirts were inappropriate or offensive because they promoted a negative stereotype of Asian-Americans.
“The slogans are pretty clever, you know?” said John K. Yasuda ’05. “Your first instinct might be to laugh. But then you realize just how serious this is.”
Many students said they found the Chinese laundry stereotype particularly offensive.
“Chinese immigrants in the 1800s had no choice [but] to be laundry workers because a racist America refused to let them be much else,” wrote AAB member Aram Yang ’02 in an e-mail.
Some also took issue with what they saw as Abercrombie’s specific targeting of Asian-Americans.
“If the shirts depicted Mexican or black Americans, Abercrombie would be eaten alive,” Yasuda said.
“It concerns me that if they put anything about other groups they’d be bankrupt in a minute,” said Tam. “They’re taking advantage of the fact that Asian-Americans might not be as organized or militant as other minority groups in America.”
And in a discussion that has been evolving over the e-mail lists of various student groups at Harvard, some have speculated that the company’s actions were a deliberate ploy to garner media attention.
“Abercrombie wants this to happen,” said Ethan Y. Yeh ’02. “They’re not so stupid that they think this wouldn’t be offensive.”
Several students pointed to the company’s controversial advertising in the past, which received media attention, to suggest that the shirts were intended to boost flagging sales.
“This whole racist T-shirt thing is just a last ditch effort to keep the publicity and sales going for them,” Jeff Sheng ’01 wrote in an e-mail to other students who were planning to protest. “To be perfectly honest, Abercrombie is not fooling anyone anymore...they’re yesterday’s hot and today’s what’s not.”
Students planning the protest said they were concerned that action on their part would add to the media hype and raise the company’s profile.
Several also said they doubt that any outrage by Asian-Americans over the t-shirts will affect Abercrombie’s sales, saying that Asian-Americans who are likely to be offended fall outside the company’s target demographic.
Instead, they said a general boycott would be most effective.
Students organizing the protest include members of the Asian American Association, South Asian Alliance, South Asian Women’s Collective, Chinese Student Association and AAB.