While cruising the mall recently, I couldn’t help but notice the sea of white streaming in and out of the Abercrombie & Fitch store.
“Oooh, Abercrombie’s having a blow-out sale,” my friend said. “Let’s go in.”
“Uh, I don’t know,” I told her. “Black folk don’t really shop here. I’ll walk around the food court or something.”
But secretly, I wanted to know what all the buzz was about. I had never had the courage to walk into an Abercrombie before.
“C’mon, it’ll only be a minute, promise,” my friend said.
As I stepped foot in that store, I felt I was in dangerous territory. An uneasiness swelled in my stomach as the customers looked on in curiosity. Feeling outnumbered and out of place, I tried to look as natural as possible. I shuffled my feet and poked at the clothing. A bubbly sales clerk chirped, “Uh huh, yeah, that tube top looks great with those low-rise jeans,” as techno music pulsated in the background.
Every couple of minutes, though, she would look over my shoulder and when I’d catch her glance, she’d squeeze off an uneasy smile. Not once did a sales clerk ask if I needed anything or wanted to try something on.
But I’ve long dealt with this reality of Shopping-While-Black: either you’re ignored or followed.
The billboard of handsome white jocks and beautiful white women frolicking in fields reminded me of how different I am from them. They are tall, slender and fair-skinned or Asian – everyone from the customers to the cashiers.
“Traitor, you don’t belong here,” that little voice in my head admonished. “Black people don’t shop here.”
I had had enough and was ready to leave when my friend chimed in, “Great, I found it; he’s going to love this shirt.”
“OK, let’s just get out of here.”
When I walked out, I was reminded of the many reasons why I refuse to spend my money in a place like Abercrombie & Fitch:
-I don’t have the “A&F look.”
-The suburban lifestyle doesn’t appeal to me.
-The Abercrombie image is just plain racist.
We all know that beauty is largely defined in this culture as white. Even some of the most popular black actresses and pop stars, such as Halle Barry and Beyonce, have lighter skin and long silky tresses.
At a young age, we are taught that white is beautiful – from Cinderella to Barbie. As a child, I used to smear my mother’s dark foundation all over my Barbie’s face and plait her hair so she could look just like me.
Imagine what message this is sending to the little black girl with dark skin, textured hair and full lips. Is she not beautiful or American enough?
Abercrombie employs these live Barbies to reinforce the Eurocentric ideal of beauty – or as they call it, the “all-American look.” I always thought “all-American” referred to the melting pot theory we’re taught in school. But I guess Abercrombie had something else in mind.
This controversial image is at the very heart of a racial-discrimination suit filed against Abercrombie & Fitch by nine Hispanic and Asian employees who accuse the company of unfair employment practices. Perhaps surprisingly, there are no black plaintiffs in the suit. In a way, we’ve created color-coded fashion associating the urban look of flashy tennis shoes, puffy coats, baggy jeans and jerseys with blacks, and the suburban look of khaki pants, polo tops and Dr. Martens with whites.
And Abercrombie represents this image perfectly, further propagating stereotypes and hatred with its racist message. Does Abercrombie have an obligation to represent minorities on their billboards and in their stores and catalogs? That’s for the courts to decide.
But honestly, I cringe at the thought of Abercrombie & Fitch expanding its marketing of self-hate and racism to even more people.
Mary Andom is a writer for NEXT, a Sunday opinion page in The Seattle Times, and a freshman at Western Washington University. E-mail: NEXT@seattletimes.com. (c) 2003, The Seattle Times.Visit The Seattle Times Extra on the World Wide Web at https://www.seattletimes.com