Abercrombie & Fitch Protest: Modern Day Asian American Empowerment

Eugene Oh

Asian American activism against Abercrombie & Fitch's line of graphic T-shirts, which depicted Asian stereotypes, led to a tremendous victory for the Asian American community. The controversial shirts, presented in April of 2002, featured such slogans as "Wong Brothers Laundry Service -- Two Wongs Can Make It White," "Abercrombie and Fitch Buddha Bash -- Get Your Buddha on the Floor," and "Wok-N-Bowl -- Let the Good Times Roll -- Chinese Food & Bowling."

Just days after the introduction of a t-shirt line, Asian American students and community leaders whipped up a public outcry, demonstrated in the streets of San Francisco, demanded an apology from the clothing line, and ultimately secured a company recall of the shirts. Victory for the Asian American community came through the use of the newest weapon for activists - the internet. An onslaught of emails, a variety of forums and up to date websites tracked the ongoing situation and the Asian American community found empowerment through the dissemination of electronic information.
The internet, a forwarded email to be exact, was the means through which I found about the debate. From the composed messages of Stanford University students, to inboxes of Asian Americans throughout the country, to chatrooms and blogs, the Abercrombie incident was ubiquitous. The use of the internet to promote community activism was quite impressive as an affordable way to unite Asian Americans from both the West Coast and East Coast, to provide a base for grassroots operations and serve as a powerful medium for earning visibility and winning support.

The true victory in the Abercrombie & Fitch controversy lies in the coalition built by the many Asian American groups in opposition. A common criticism of the Asian American community is the tendency for each individual ethnic group to identify with its own heritage rather than with a larger Asian American consciousness. While the t-shirts generally took at aim at Chinese stereotypes, all Asian Americans took offense at Abercrombie's caricatures and slogans, and unified resistance crossed individual ethnic lines. The college students and teenagers who organized the protests and forwarded thousands of emails were Asians of all descents.

But most refreshing was the fact that Asian Americans even had the ability to start a controversy and create an uproar. Burdened with the model minority myth, of the silent, apolitical people too involved with economic advancement and unwilling to whine about discrimination, the Asian American community has been lacking in political prowess. America is a pluralist nation in which a great many interests and peoples compete to determine whose values will prevail in society. By now choosing to fully partake in this process, Asian Americans are gaining the opportunity make gains on their concerns. The Asian American community's victory in the Abercrombie & Fitch controversy breeds new opportunities, visibility, and awareness.
Activism over more current controversies, hopefully reflective of a continued trend, has also been rewarded with progressive results.

In January of 2003, NBA superstar Shaquille O'neal's racially insensitive comments about Chinese basketball player Yao Ming were brought to public attention by pressure from Asianweek, a weekly magazine. Six months after the comments, radio stations, The LA Times, and ESPN took notice of the controversy and ultimately O'neal apologized. The Asian American community is making political gains and is no longer a pushover, a model minority to be taken advantage of. Through the Abercrombie & Fitch incidents and other controversies that lie ahead, maybe the Asian American community will emerge as a new form of yellow power.

I. "ABERCROMBIE & GLITCH: Asian Americans rip retailer for stereotypes on T-shirts." Chronicle (San Francisco), 18 April 2002, p. A1.
II. Tang, Irwin. APA Community Should Tell Shaquille O'Neal to 'Come down to Chinatown (2003). Available at http://www.asianweek.com/2003_01_03/sports_yaoming.html(03 January 2003)