October 14, 2012

Gap's "Manifest Destiny" t-shirt

A new Native controversy burst out on the Internet Saturday. As an online petition explains:GAP is selling a black shirt with the words "MANIFEST DESTINY" written on it. This article of clothing promotes a belief that has resulted in the mass genocide of indigenous people, and it serves to normalize white privilege and oppression. This shirt is marketed to teens and young adults, and it gives no context for the racism and inequality that persists in our society, to this day, as a result of this doctrine. We are asking that this shirt be discontinued, and that an apology be issued.

Until this is done, we are asking that followers of this petition also consider other means of contacting GAP. This includes: *EMAIL* Gap at custserv@gap.com and CC the designer at info@markmcnairy.com; and/or *WRITE A REVIEW* of this shirt on the product's page; *CALL* Gap at (650) 952-4400. *MESSAGE or COMMENT* on the Gap Facebook company page, http://www.facebook.com/gap.

The tshirt that GAP is selling can be seen here: http://www.gap.com/browse/product.do?cid=47214&vid=1&pid=349697002

We thank the signers of this petition for their commitment to equality and social justice.

Aim Southern Cal shared some more thoughts on the shirt:‎GAP.... On your "Make a Difference" page, you state:

"Behind the label of any product is a deeper story about its social and environmental implications. Were the workers who made the product treated fairly? Were environmental considerations weighed during its design, manufacture and transport? What is a brand’s commitment to creating positive change?"

Did anyone ask these questions before designing, marketing, and selling the 'Manifest Destiny' shirt?

So, what IS your brand's commitment to creating positive change? Because this isn't it. I understand there's a lot of ignorance surrounding our history, and I don't really expect a t-shirt designer to have an education that would've given them a full understanding of what manifest destiny truly entailed. But, it has been brought to your attention now. This promotes the glorification of genocide and conquest.... that's the essence of manifest destiny. Not very positive. Unless the 'positive change' you're referring to, are the profits you make from such things."

Bloggers join the fray

Manifest Destiny--The T-Shirt!

By Phil CampbellI walked into the Gap at Astor Place during my lunch break and was surprised to see this t-shirt hanging pristinely on a clothes rack near the entrance. As you can see, “Manifest Destiny” is emblazoned on its front, as bold as any Nike logo.

Manifest Destiny? The 19th century philosophy that kick-started our national expansion beyond the Mississippi River? The original instigating principle of American exceptionalism? The concept that helped our country crush the Native Americans and help expand slavery into Texas?

What an odd thing to put on a t-shirt. I could think of a million other things to put on a shirt, a thousand things from the 19th century alone. Romanticism, anyone? Transcendentalism, anyone? They put Walt Whitman in a Levi’s commercial…When will this hundred-plus-year-old fashion nostalgia end? What new twists will our understanding of our expansionist past undergo before marketers find some new era to exploit? The 18th century has already been kicked around enough, thanks to 1776. I’d really like to see someone find a way to profit off the Trail of Tears, just to see if it’s possible.

I don’t mean to make this an attack on t-shirt marketers, who aren’t expected to be the most contemplative people in society, but the shirt does raise a bunch of questions. Who would buy this shirt? Do the hipsters of Manhattan and other liberal areas understand the history that underlies this saying? And why would designer Mark McNairy play with that singular phrase, what was his motivation? A lot of people on the left have associated Manifest Destiny with a kind of racist jingoism, and few on the right have bothered to take the time to defend the idea, preferring to let America’s triumphant history speak for itself (hey, we won, didn’t we?). I would have thought the idea kind of toxic, when it’s considered at all, but apparently not.

Manifest Destiny has nothing to do with the usual trove of easy themes that motivate marketers, like self-esteem and self-aggrandizement. Which is why it’s so baffling.
Manifest Destiny (or, whoa, Gap Inc, what the hell?)

By Belle JarManifest Destiny became the smart, fancy-sounding name for a belief that had already been around for quite some time: namely, that white folks of European descent were destined to rule the entirety of North America. These people truly believed that it was God’s will that they colonize the new world and systematically destroy any civilizations that might already be occupying the lands they wanted.

Manifest Destiny and the philosophy behind it are responsible for a whole bunch of really terrible things. It was used to justify the Mexican-American War, the War of 1812, and, most appallingly, the Indian Removal Act. Manifest Destiny was used to vindicate the myriad abuses suffered by people of colour at the hands of white North Americans. It’s the philosophy that lead to our continent-wide reservation system , not to mention the residential schools created for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

The effects of Manifest Destiny can still be felt, in the poverty and degradation suffered by American and Canadian people of colour, and in the deplorable conditions found on many reserves, both here and south of the border. The ideas behind manifest destiny still exist in our white western consciousness, as much as we might be loathe to admit it; they come up every time our (largely white) government asserts that it knows best when it comes to First Nations issues, or every time someone complains about how much freaking money has already been spent on Attawapiskat only to have their community still be in a state of crisis. Manifest Destiny is apparent every time someone chooses to be bigoted and wilfully ignorant about non-white immigrants, or tries to deny the far-reaching effects of racism; it’s apparent in the mindset of all the people who never take a moment to wonder why or how so many white people ended up owning so much fucking land.

Look, I don’t think that The Gap, or Mark McNairy, or GQ, or anyone involved here was trying to be offensive. My guess is that they thought that Manifest Destiny was a hip-sounding phrase, one that conveyed the idea of taking control over one’s own life or something like that. I’m certain (or at least hopeful) that Gap Inc. will end up pulling this shirt from their stores, issue a formal apology, and go through a brief, though sincere, period of mea culpa. As unbelievable as it is to me, I’m sure that those responsible for designing, approving and manufacturing this shirt did not understand the full scope of what its graphic meant.

And that, in a nutshell, is the main problem here.

The problem is that we want to forget; as white North Americans, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by forgetting. We even ask that people of colour, especially, in this case, Aboriginal peoples, participate in our collective cultural amnesia. We tell them that we’ll never have the post-racial society that everyone wants until we stop bringing up the past, stop licking old wounds. We don’t want to feel guilty, especially as we often believe that we, the generation living now, are not responsible. After all, it wasn’t us drafting racist and genocidal laws calling for the relocation and often murder of an entire race of people; it wasn’t us sending thousands of First Nations kids to residential schools, where they would be subject to a dizzying array of abuses.

We don’t have blood on our hands; we’re good people. It’s not our fault that our ancestors were assholes, right?

What we often forget is that our privileged lives are built on the foundation of these grievous human rights abuses; we might not be our asshole ancestors, might even willingly speak out against the crimes they committed, but we’re still pretty fucking happy to reap the benefits of those crimes. We do have blood on our hands, whether we like it or not.

So maybe it’s not a bad thing that The Gap made this t-shirt; and maybe, rather than flinging vitriol at Gap Inc. and swearing to boycott their brand, we can all of us use this as an opportunity to start a dialogue about what Manifest Destiny really means, and the ways that we, as modern-day North Americans, can fight against its lasting effects. I would love if Gap Inc. would be the ones to start this dialogue; I would love for them to take this chance to talk about our racist heritage, and how our willful blindness to the past lead them to allow for the design and creation of this shirt. That would be pretty cool, right?
More responses

Since the controversy started Saturday, the Gap didn't respond over the weekend. But whoever was staffing the Gap's Facebook page deleted postings about the shirt, so someone knew about it.

Designer Mark McNairy was understandably defensive about his work:

Since he tweeted that before taking it down, I presume he knows what the phrase means. Otherwise, we might've guessed that he heard it and didn't know what it meant, but thought it sounded cool.

In response I tweeted:Why did the Gap use "Manifest Destiny" on a t-shirt by @mmcnairy? Because "Master Race" or "Kill the Heathens" would've been too offensive.Others were thinking along the same lines:

(Steven Paul Judd)

(Aaron Paquette)

For more on Manifest Destiny, see America the Self-Declared Victim and Scalia Ignorant of Indian Law.

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