shoes that shock?
I woke up this morning, checked my email and received three separate messages from people, drawing my attention to this brewing controversy over a new shoe by Adidas, the Y1 HUF.
UPDATE AT BOTTOM
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Apparently, some Asian Americans are upset over what they see as a racist stereotype being depicted on the shoe's tongue. In the words of one of the people heading a write-in protest campaign to Adidas:
- "This image perpetuates negative stereotypes of Asians, and Adidas shouldn't be allowed to make money off of such a concept. Adidas needs to know that this is not a fashion statement - it's an insult."
The email campaign partially nods to this, stating:
- "we think it is, at the very least, a bad marketing decision on the part of Adidas. And, taken out of context, it represents an outdated stereotype.
This complaint (and thus campaign) lacks merit . It's also completely frustrating for reasons I'll get to in a moment.
In terms of baseless-ness: you cannot ignore context. Yeah, sure, "out of context," the shoe's imagery could look offensive but "out of context," almost ANY IMAGE could be construed as offensive. Take, for example, this image from KMD's Black Bastards. "Out of context," it might look incredibly offensive, say on a KKK t-shirt. But when you realize that this is KMD's statement about killing off the sambo stereotype, then it takes on a completely different meaning. Context matters, especially in art, especially when you're talking about potentially subversive art.
I think the problem here is that the context with the Y1 Huf is that it's on a shoe made by a mega-conglomerate. If, for example, this shoe had been put out by the folks at Blacklava.com, I suspect we'd hear nary a sound.
(Then again, some of what BL puts out is rather didactic and McGee's design is more subtle, and thus, open to misunderstanding. You can't really misunderstand a "I Will Not Love You Long Time" t-shirt. By the way, am I the only one who thinks it's kind of ironic that the logo appears on a clingy tank-top and that most of the photo gallery pictures of women wearing them tend to be provocative in a way that counters the message? Way to protest the objectification of Asian women by um, accentuating bust lines. Anyways...)
So yes, Adidas does not necessarily have a shining reputation as a socially progressive company but the mere fact that they're releasing the shoe - and I'm almost positive there were less than 1,000 pairs of these made, if not less than 500 - isn't grounds for protest either. Please keep in mind: these shoes cost $250 (now that's offensive!) and it's not like you're going to see every hipster in from SOMA to Williamsburg willing to shell out that kind of money for these. Especially since most are still too busy buying BAPES.
By the way, just to note the obvious: the design is on the tongue. Which usually is not visible on someone's feet when they're wearing pants. (Which should be all the time since rocking these kicks with shorts would be a really, really bad look in any situation.)
Here's my larger point: Asian Americans, politically speaking, need to expend as energy on issues of urgent social justice import rather than getting perpetually hung up on the issue of negative images/stereotypes.
I know Jeff Chang had a similar point to make a few years back, over the "Tsunami Song" debacle, and it bears repeating: in principle, yes, fighting stereotypes has a political, progressive purpose. However, on the grand scale of social justice issues, it feels like our community becomes disproportionately caught up on fighting stereotypes when much of that rigor and passion might be more usefully expended elsewhere.
For example, I have yet to receive an email blast asking me to write to my political representatives about opposing the HR 4437 immigration bill (though I do not doubt, for a moment, that there are many Asian American organizers working to oppose this legislation). Nor do you often see the same kind of grassroots campaigns being circulated on the internet to draw attention to environmental justice issues affecting low income neighborhoods near polluting industries.
In an ideal world, you shouldn't have to choose but in a world of realpolitik, it's important to choose your battles wisely. Believe me, there are times when I think people should be rightfully indignant over how Native American imagery is caricatured on sports logos, especially given the saturation of those images nationally.
But with this Y1 Huf debate...what are we protesting exactly? It's a limited edition shoe, destined to only be bought be a few hundred people, designed by an Asian American artist known for subtly subversive work, and located on a part of the shoe that most people will never see. How does this really merit anyone's outrage considering all there is to be outraged in our nation and world today?
Just to be clear: Despite appearances, I'm not trying to single out this campaign for scorn or ridicule. Rather, I'm trying to draw attention to a far larger tradition within Asian American activism that I think really needs to be rethought, especially in these dire times. The need for social justice campaigns that deal with 1) issues of multi-racial import and 2) issues that materially - rather than just symbolically - affect people and families, has rarely been greater in our contemporary history. Let's not get caught, staring at our feet.
(By the way, I have to say, even with the bucktooth guy, I really love what McGee did with the design. The brown/gold colorway is gorgeous, especially with the pinstripes. I'd actually consider buying these if not for the $250 price tag. Ouch.)
UPDATE: As it turns out, the person who originally helped kick start this campaign (not who sent out the email but the person who upped them on the controversy to begin with) is actually someone I know and he called me earlier this evening and explained where he was coming from. I feel kind of bad because I know it seems like I'm shitting all over the campaign and that wasn't really my point. It's just that when you see the umpteenth "protest negative stereotypes" campaign, it's the proverbial last straw. This said, my man had some important things to say and after a long, and at times heated, conversation, I could appreciate better where he was coming from.
The gist of it is this: I'm not mad at the shoe because I think I know where McGee is coming from and so while I find the image - divorced of context - to be problematic, as an art object, I apply a different standard than I would, say, a movie billboard or mass produced t-shirt with an anonymous designer behind it.
However, there were some blanks that my man filled in, namely that this shoe has created some waves inside both Adidas and Nike and mostly what's happened is that a bunch of White folks have simultaneously defended the shoe's image as well as dismissed complaints about it. However, their dismissal is not based on them claiming, "but it's McGee's art" because most of them don't know McGee from Adam. Rather, their retort is, "I don't get it - this doesn't look offensive to me, why are you being so pissy?"
Rule of Thumb: It's never a good look for White people to ask why people of color are offended by something they find racist even if said object's inherent racism is up for debate. I mean, you might be right but even then, you'll still come off looking like an asshole.
Back on topic: From that perspective, I can now understand why my man was so angry at the sneaker (and this is a dude who personally knows and grew up with McGee): it wasn't about who made it but rather, how the shoe was received, and how it exposed the many layers of racism within the shoe world (both corporate and collectors) for not even respecting the fact that some people might be offended by the image. To that degree, I can appreciate why this whole affair must be frustrating: it's like all the sports fans who argue that there's nothing wrong with the Cleveland Indians logo even though it's clearly a Red Sambo to anyone who isn't blind.
Notably, my friend was giving me examples of proposed logos for shoes that the legal dept. shut down over concerns and they were all far less controversial than the Ray Fong image. When you see that kind of double-standard being applied, it's easy to understand why the Fong image is so exasperating, even understanding what McGee's intent might have been behind it.
My original post above was really about two different issues. One was to ask, "what's the big deal?" and I now understand better why this shoe would rankle so many people - it's bringing out all this latent racism by dumb asses who think it's "cool/cute" to rock a buck-toothed Chinaman on their shoe as well as shoe execs who can't understand why Asian Americans might be upset. Just to make things worse, the people who are paid to know better, i.e. staff at Nike/Adidsas, might be able to defend the shoe on the merits of artistic freedom but instead, their main response has been, "man, these Orientals sure are sensitive." If that's not enough to make you want to lace up some steel-toes and go ass whooping around Portland and Beaverton, I don't know what is.
The other point of the post is something I still stand behind: negative images are important (clearly) but I have a wider hope that, as a community, we don't invest ALL our time in fighting this one area and end up neglecting other important battles that need dedication and focus too. Ha, already, I've written what amounts to three posts on this thing even though my point was that I didn't think people should invest precious time on it. Color me contradictory, oops.
In any case, all this ends my aspirations to buy the shoe and I have to say, I'm a little sad since, logo aside, it really is a spanktacular shoe but giving the choice between my wardrobe and respecting a friend, there's no question what's far more important. (And besides, my wardrobe needs help far beyond what a $250 pair of sneaks could do for it).