Macy’s Guide to “Becoming White”

cThis week, one of the world’s biggest and most exclusive mega-fashion department stores, Macy’s, was forced to recall a line of offensive T-shirts. The contraversial (brown) shirts had the phrase, “BROWN IS THE NEW WHITE” printed across the chest in all (white) capitals. Macy’s, Macy’s, Macy’s what were you thinking? I have no earthly idea how a shirt like this ever make it to print, or which marketing representative in their right mind thought that this would get over among people of color. To complicate the issue, the shirt was part of a new campaign by Macy’s to reach out to an increasingly diverse clientele. Clearly, they failed miserably;

“We are constantly looking for unique and differentiated merchandise that will resonate with our customers as hip, current and trendy. We also continue to work in developing business relationships with minority vendors to serve the growing diverse customer base. We apologize if customers have found some of the merchandise offensive and have removed the style that they found objectionable.” (read more here.)

The most absurd thing about this “apology” is that Macy’s refuses to acknowledge the issue at hand. The style of the shirt is not what’s objectionable, it is the underlying implication and political statement printed on the T-shirt. What did they even mean by “Brown is the New White?” Beyond the ridiculousness and ignorance, this is the question that intrigues me.

One interpretation could be that Latinos are next in line to assimilate into mainstream white culture, as the Irish did in the first half of the 19th century (read How The Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev). Unfortunately for Black people, one of the ways the Irish were able to assimilate was by embracing racism. Hopefully, “becoming white” no longer requires the same criteria for membership in the 21st century. Needless to say, you will never see a shirt that reads, “Black is the new White,” because the fundamental criteria for becoming white is being non-Black. However, the question remains: does the statement, “Brown is the New White” have any validity? Hip-Hop artivist Immortal Technique addresses the issue in his song, Leaving the Past

You see the Spaniards never left despues de Colon
If you don’t believe me you click on Univision
I never seen so much racism in all of my life
Every program and newscast, all of them white
It’s like apartheid with 10 percent ruling the rest

As Technique reveals, the most popular Spanish-speaking television stations, Univision (and Telemundo) feature almost exclusively white actors and newscasters. People of African descent are rarely represented on Spanish-speaking television. In this regard, if “Brown” simply means a white Cuban, Brazilian or Puerto Rican, then they have already assimilated to a certain extent. Take J-Lo for example, who played a white woman in her 2001 film, The Wedding Planner. Perhaps she would be a prime candidate for Macy’s “New White”. On the flipside, with controversy in immigration and racism as poignant as ever in the United States, it seems absurd that Macy’s would suggest that Hispanic people are in the process of becoming white. Between the Minute Men, the grassroots political activism and the massive rebellions in California, “Brown” is actually beginning to look more like Black these days (See Blackademics post: LAPD, Violence and Immigration)

There are so many controversial issues, including the validity of as “Brown” as a racial designation, the various ways in which race is constructed in different countries (for example in the Dominican Republic, where a sister the complexion of Whoopi Goldberg would refuse t identify as Black) and the dynamics of “divide and conquer” used to fracture communities of color. After you get over being offended by this T-shirt, please contribute to the discussion surrounding some of the deeper issues that it raises.

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Published on July 25, 2007 at 6:06 am. 24 Comments.
Filed under racism, inter-minority relations, fashion.