Racist T-Shirts Since 2002

Abercrombie & Fitch rightly recalls line of offensive t-shirts, should apologize further

On Friday, Abercrombie & Fitch recalled a new line of Asian-themed graphic t-shirts, wisely but belatedly recognizing that they are patently offensive and lack any comedic value. Five such shirts had already reached its retail stores, website and catalogue, including one with the racist message, “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White,” which mockingly depicts two men with slanted eyes and conical hats.

Abercrombie & Fitch spokesperson Hampton Carney issued a statement designed to demonstrate the depth of the company’s regret, saying “We’re very, very, very sorry. It has never been our intention to offend anyone.” But in the same breath, he claimed ignorance of the bitterly offensive and disrespectful character of those shirts, demonstrating the lack of cultural awareness among decision makers at Abercrombie & Fitch. “These graphic t-shirts were designed with the sole purpose of adding humor and levity to our fashion line,” Carney said.

To its credit, the company’s strongly worded statement and quick removal of the offending shirts from retail stores shows at least some recognition of the gravity of its mistake. As many protesters have demanded, Abercrombie should communicate that recognition to all of its customers by displaying an extended apology in its stores, catalogues and website. But regret is not enough to prevent egregious lapses of judgment in the future, and Abercrombie & Fitch’s apology should describe measures that it will take to prevent jokes of such poor taste from ever leaving the design studio. Of course, they should not even make it that far.

Some have claimed that the uproar over the latest line of shirts is an overreaction, one predicated on a kind of knee-jerk political correctness that refuses to allow America’s diversity a place in intelligent humor. But on the contrary, this outrage represents the understanding that blatant and degrading stereotypes are destructive not only to the groups directly targeted but also to an inclusive American society as a whole. Such racist stereotypes, by their very nature, are not funny. The fact that diverse groups have rallied together in large numbers to resist this latest incarnation of cultural ignorance is a promising sign that more and more people respect the distinction between comedy and condescension.