“[W]e hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”
As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
This quote implies — if not outright states — that fat people aren’t the cool and popular and beautiful customers that Abercrombie & Fitch wants shopping at their store. Cue the Militant Baker’s Attractive & Fat photoshoot, the Change.org petition, and Baker’s rallying cry that, “I challenge the separation of attractive and fat, and I assert that they are compatible regardless of what you believe. Not only do I know that I’m sexy, but I also have the confidence to pose nude in ways you don’t dare.”
Jes Baker poses with a male model in an image from her Attractive & Fat photoshoot.
Okay, so I get it: Abercrombie & Fitch shouldn’t be exclusionary.
…except, I kind of don’t get it: this is Abercrombie & Fitch we’re talking about, right? I mean, hasn’t Abercrombie & Fitchalways been exclusionary? Isn’t that their frickin’ business model!?!
That 2006 Salon article from which the original quote was pulled is about Jeffries’ (arguably highly-successful) reinvention of the Abercrombie & Fitch brand-name into an in-demand uniform for America’s self-identified young social elite. Over the last several decades, A&F has built a fashion empire by selling clothes to a very select, very specific, target demographic. In Jeffries’ own words:
To Jeffries, the “A&F guy” is the best of what America has to offer: He’s cool, he’s beautiful, he’s funny, he’s masculine, he’s optimistic, and he’s certainly not “cynical” or “moody,” two traits he finds wholly unattractive.
Abercrombie & Fitch is as much about selling surfer clothes to America’s tween and twenty-something self-described “cool kids” as it is a large-scale vanity project for a 70-year-old man trying to remake America in the image of his own very disturbed ideas about who and what the ideal American is and looks like. I mean, Jeffries doesn’t just want to sell clothes to the “A&F guy”; he is actually trying to be the A&F guy. I mean just look at him:
He’s like Michael Jackson, except he’s (probably) never set his hair on fire.
His biggest obsession, though, is realizing his singular vision of idealized all-American youth. He wants desperately to look like his target customer (the casually flawless college kid), and in that pursuit he has aggressively transformed himself from a classically handsome man into a cartoonish physical specimen: dyed hair, perfectly white teeth, golden tan, bulging biceps, wrinkle-free face, and big, Angelina Jolie lips. But while he can’t turn back the clock, he can — and has — done the next best thing, creating a parallel universe of beauty and exclusivity where his attractions and obsessions have made him millions, shaped modern culture’s concepts of gender, masculinity and physical beauty, and made over himself and the world in his image, leaving them both just a little more bizarre than he found them.
Because nothing says “confidence” like thousands of dollars worth of plastic surgery.
As for the company itself, Abercrombie & Fitch‘s business model is best-described with the one word that Jeffries’ uses: “aspirational”. Like it or not, Abercrombie & Fitch sells to a very specific, self-limited demographic that can and will purchase their clothes; and those who can’t, really really want to. Abercrombie & Fitch cultivates that exclusionary atmosphere in its stores because it caters to a very real, if distasteful, aspect of society: there is an “in” crowd, and we all want to be a part of it. Or, put another way, if everyone can wear your shirt, there’s nothing special about you when you wear it; and everyone likes being special.
And so, Abercrombie & Fitch is the most ubiquitous exclusive club on the planet. Despite the fact that every mall in America seems to boast an Abercrombie & Fitch store, the company is clearly trying to limit its customer base. First of all, all of their clothing styles look exported straight off a California beach, and are therefore remarkably impractical for anyone who doesn’t live in Southern California. Further, their clothes only run between sizes 0 and 10 — a maximum of a 38″ bust or a 31″ waist for women — despite the fact that the national average in women’s waist size is 37.5″.
Consider also that every single Abercrombie & Fitch model looks like they were cloned from two surviving members of Hitler’s Youth Army rendered immortal as a result of Nazi doctors’ human experimentation but were then forced on the run at the end of World War II before they were covertly discovered by CIA spies in Europe and smuggled into the United States for study at Area 51 by scientists hoping to reverse engineer the secrets of eternal youth, but then were subsequently kidnapped by A&F operatives and are now imprisoned in an underground bunker at A&F’s Ohio headquarters where they serve as source genetic material for A&F’s army of clothing models/child soldiers being trained to carry out Jeffries’ plans for a military takeover of the Western hemisphere.
Photographic evidence of Abercrombie & Fitch’s clone army.
Don’t be deceived: these clones are trained killers… or, they will be, once A&F scientists figure out how to reverse the characteristic muscle atrophy that has rendered these clones incapable of carrying an AK-47 or anything else that weighs more than 7 lbs.
And in my final example, just take a look at your typical Abercrombie & Fitch storefront.
It’s like a fortress of douchebaggery.
Where other stores have floor-to-ceiling panoramic glass and bright gallery lighting, every single Abercrombie & Fitch store I’ve ever seen looks like this: dark black wooden slats oriented to block curious shoppers who might want a casual glimpse at what’s being sold inside. Walk in the front door and you are immediately greeted with a wall upon which is mounted a huge black & white picture of a half-naked Aryan clone.
Don’t look like this? Don’t come in.
To actually access any clothes in the store, you have to make a right or left turn to see the shop’s wares; none of which you could preview from outside. And if you’ve ever been in an Abercrombie & Fitch, you’ll know it’s like being transported into a whole ‘nother world: a mildly claustrophic world stuffed full of highly pretentious clothing, devoid of natural sunlight, and smelling just a tiny bit of musk and mothballs.
… or what I kind of imagine it would be like to be stuck in Robert Pattinson’s closet.
In short, Abercrombie & Fitch is deliberately trying to place obstacles between interested customers and their clothes, hoping to actually deter shoppers from buying their clothes. The idea is that those who have successfully navigated these deterrents — by making it into the store, fitting into their clothes, and having enough money to buy it — will feel that much more “emotionally attached” to their A&F wardrobe because they’re now a part of that exclusive club of “A&F customers”.
Like the finisher’s medal for the lamest adventure race ever.
So, colour me shocked that Abercrombie & Fitch is unwelcoming to plus-size customers. For a company with a history of being both sexist and racist, finding out that A&F is fat-phobic is a little like discovering that the guy who enjoys kicking puppies has also flushed a live goldfish or two in his life. I mean, this is a company that thought a woman’s t-shirt that read “Who needs brains when you’ve got these?” across the bosom was a good idea. And, this was the company that single-handedly galvanized the modern Asian American movement with its highly-offensive racist shirts depicting buck-toothed racialized caricatures of Asian men and hearkening to the stereotype of Asian laundries.
The only store that would sell a shirt like this is one that knows these designs won’t be insulting its “target demographic”.
Eduardo Gonzalez, a Stanford student from Hayward, California, was pleased with the settlement. “I remember how discouraged I felt when I applied for a job at the Santa Clara [Abercrombie & Fitch] store and the manager suggested that I work in the stock room or on the late night crew in a non-sales position. I felt it was because I was a Latino – but there was no one I could report this to at the time.”
Plaintiff Anthony Ocampo, a recent Stanford graduate, who was told he couldn’t be hired because “there’s already too many Filipinos,” agreed with Gonzalez. “It is important that Abercrombie seek out employees of color and provide them training and opportunities for promotion.”
Jennifer Lu worked at the Crystal Court Mall store in Costa Mesa, California for three years while she was a student at U.C. Irvine. She and five other Asian American employees were terminated after a visit from senior management and replaced with white sales staff. “I was very distressed after I was terminated for being an Asian American woman. I am now very excited about the policies and programs Abercrombie must implement that came about as a result of this lawsuit. I am looking forward to seeing a more diverse Abercrombie; one that actually reflects the look of America,” said Lu.
Carla Grubb, an African American student at California State Bakersfield, was constructively discharged from the Abercrombie store in the Bakersfield Valley Plaza Mall after being assigned cleaning and other menial jobs. “I felt demoralized being the only African American employee and being specifically assigned to dust the store, wash the windows and clean the floors. With this settlement, I now know that Abercrombie cannot treat other employees of color in such a manner.
So, yeah. Abercrombie & Fitch is also a little fat-phobic, too.
But, I guess what really inspired me to write this post is the overwhelming outrage against Abercrombie & Fitch. Where was this outrage 12 years ago when Abercrombie & Fitch was being racist? Where were the Asian Americans being invited on the Today show to talk about what it’s like to be Asian in America and how it’s totally not cool for a store to sell racist caricatures of our people, especially when you’re also putting your minority employees in the stockroom and on clean-up duty? Where were the hoards of mainstream reporters writing about how a company made routine practice of discriminating against employees of colour, while selling hatespeech on its t-shirts? How is it that only now — after Abercrombie & Fitch pissed off the fat-positive subculture — are people actually willing to call a discriminatory company discriminatory?
Which brings me full circle to Jes Baker and her Attractive & Fat photoshoot. Look, I’m a former fat girl: I totally and earnestly get what she was trying to do; really, I do. But there’s a part of me that’s a little disquieted about the message of the photoshoot. Here’s the thing: Abercrombie & Fitch is a multimillion dollar company because at the end of the day, the business model works. A&F has set itself up as an exclusive club, and there are customers who literally buy into it.
At the end of the day, because the Attractive & Fat photoshoot copies the Abercrombie & Fitch photographic style while merely replacing the size of one of the two models, I can’t help but wonder what exactly the message is supposed to be? In Jes Baker’s words, the problem isn’t necessarily that A&F touts an overtly restrictive beauty ideal, but instead that the restrictive beauty ideal doesn’t include short and fat people:
Never in our culture do we see sexy photo shoots that pair short, fat, unconventional models with not short, not fat, professional models. To put it in your words: “unpopular kids” with “cool kids”. It’s socially acceptable for same to be paired with same, but never are contrasting bodies positively mixed in the world of advertisement. The juxtaposition of uncommonly paired bodies is visually jarring, and, even though I wish it didn’t, it causes viewers to feel uncomfortable. This is largely attributed to companies like yours that perpetuate the thought that fat women are not beautiful.
Doesn’t this kind of imply that Jes’ problem is more that fat kids aren’t part of the “cool kids”, and not that there are cool kids in the first place? Or, it’s okay to exclude, just don’t exclude me?
I can’t help but remember the Abercrombie & Fitch protests organized within the Asian American community nearly twelve years — a movement that marked one of the first uses of the Internet for progressive social change, that provided momentum to build the politicized online Asian American community that thrives today, and that I was at least on the fringes of at the time (which I realize dates me but, y’know…). We took to the streets. We made signs. We advocated boycott.
Because what’s really troublesome about Abercrombie & Fitch isn’t that it’s exclusionary, but that it’s exclusionary and that it works. That people secretly or openly actually want to be a part of this dumbass exclusionary club, and they understand that if it didn’t exclude someone, than it wouldn’t be exclusionary.
That’s why twelve years ago, we didn’t suggest that there was anything positive about Abercrombie & Fitch‘s exclusionary business practices. So, yeah, Abercrombie & Fitch could throw in some pictures of short and fat models paired with tall thin models in their catalog. And that would certainly go a long way towards normalizing curvy folks into popular ideas of beauty.
But that still won’t stop Mike Jeffries from being the kind of racist dickwad whose stores stop uncomfortably short of hanging this sign on its front door:
Oh yeah, I went there.
So, in summary, I support Jes Baker’s Attractive & Fat photoshoot. I really do. I just wish that while she’s fielding calls from reporters this week, she takes a minute to mention how Abercrombie & Fitch has been discriminatory against a lot more people than just fat people. And maybe rather than advocating more plus-sized models in the A&F catalog, we should all be shopping at stores that aren’t trying to exclude people in the first place.
Because, there’s no part of me that wants to spend money in a place that thinks it can define for me what the American ideal is.
There’s a video that’s been making the rounds of the feminist blogosphere. It’s a viral ad by Dove, maker of all kinds of skincare and personal hygiene products, as part of their “Real Beauty” campaign. For a few years now, Dove has been marketing themselves as the enlightened skincare company, charging themselves with exploring and improving women’s self-esteem and beauty image issues (while selling us fresh-smelling soap).
Of course, this is your typical feel-good schlock, right? I mean, a beauty company that cares? We all know that this is largely a marketing ploy designed to target a particular subsect of women, typically older and perhaps more predisposed towards a dialogue on body image and beauty conventions.
Yet, there’s something remarkably heartwarming about the marketing campaign. There’s a part of me that can’t help but think: if Dove is sending a positive message to women about self-esteem and body image, why do I care why they’re doing it?
In their most recent efforts, Dove conducted what they’re calling a “social experiment” called “Real Beauty Sketches”. A group of women were ushered into a warehouse where they were interviewed — sans face-to-face contact — by an FBI-trained sketch artist on their appearance. The sketch artist used these details to produce a sketch of the women. A second sketch of the same woman was then produced by the FBI artist based on an interview with a stranger who spent time conversing with her. Both sketches were then compared side-by-side, and the contrasts are immediately evident: there’s an immense gulf between how each subjects sees herself, and how each subject is seen by others.
Sketches of subject Jenise, as described by herself (left) and by a stranger (right).
The power of this campaign is undeniable, and I confess that it resonated with me. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words; in this one simple “experiment”, we are able to see how profoundly a woman’s preoccupation with her physical beauty has distorted her own self-image.
Here’s how: the sketches on the right (based on the descriptions of strangers) can be assumed to be a more-or-less accurate representation of a woman’s physical projection towards the world around her, because strangers carry no specific value biases towards any particular facial feature or another. The sketches are highly symmetrical, and somewhat “normalized” (for lack of a better word), emphasizing how most of us construct and distinguish physical appearance: major features (e.g. shape of eyes, nose and mouth as well as hair and eye colour) are ascribed certain characteristics to produce a unique appearance profile that we then assign to a particular individual; meanwhile, small details are largely glossed over as unimportant or even unseen.
By contrast, the sketches on the left are based on a descriptions wherein particular emphasis is placed on specific facial features and with value judgements assigned to perceived imperfections and flaws, no matter how small. This reflects the relationship that people tend to have with their physical forms: we imagine that everyone is focused on the zit on our foreheads, our protruding guts, or our chicken-thin calf muscles. We forget that the flaws we perceive are not obvious to others, and that they appear monumental because we are focusing on them.
The take-home message in this “experiment” is not that the sketches on the right are innately more “beautiful” (although they are arguably so because they are often more symmetrical due to the lack of distortion through emphasis on perceived flaws; physical symmetry is an innate characteristic of perceived conventional beauty), but that the contrast between both sketches is an undeniable demonstration of the impact of self-perception on overall body image.
Or, in other words: we are not always the best judges of our own appearance.
Yet, there have been feminists out there who have strongly criticized Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches. One blog post has been making the rounds, written by Jazz of little drops. In it, Jazz makes a few arguments against the campaign.
First, Jazz argues that the campaign is not racially diverse:
When it comes to the diversity of the main participants: all four are Caucasian, three are blonde with blue eyes, all are thin, and all are young (the oldest appears to be 40). The majority of the non-featured participants are thin, young white women as well. Hmm… probably a little limiting, wouldn’t you say? We see in the video that at least three black women were in fact drawn for the project. Two are briefly shown describing themselves in a negative light (one says she has a fat, round face, and one says she’s getting freckles as she ages). Both women are lighter skinned. A black man is shown as one of the people describing someone else, and he comments that she has “pretty blue eyes”. One Asian woman is briefly shown looking at the completed drawings of herself and you see the back of a black woman’s head; neither are shown speaking. Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds.
I’m honestly fairly confused by this comment. Out of the seven featured portraits on the Dove site, two are of African-American women and one is of an Asian-American woman. True, this does mean that a full 57% of portraits are of Caucasian women, but I would hardly say this renders the campaign monolithically White. Additionally, it’s clear that other women, whose portraits are not on the website, are also of non-Caucasian descent: at least one other African-American woman, and a darker-skinned (possibly Middle Eastern?) woman at 2:31 of the video above — both participated. None of these women of colour strike me as noticeably “lighter skinned”, or that they are somehow less representative of their race due to the particular shade of brown of their skin. Regardless, the comment troubles me: if the purpose of the “experiment” is to explore self-perception and identity, I don’t see how the experiment is made more or less valid by insufficient racial tokenism.
Jazz goes on to say that her primary problem with the ad campaign is that it emphasizes what some have termed “looks-ism” in our society — that people (male and female) are judged at least in part based on how we look.
….[M]y primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are (if you look like the featured women, I guess).
I get where Jazz is coming from, but I ultimately disagree with this take on the Dove campaign. I think this reflects a general misunderstanding of what the Dove campaign is trying to get at, one that — to be fair — Dove perpetuates in its editing of the video. As I write above, the point of the campaign (in my opinion) isn’t that the stranger-generated sketches are more generically beautiful, but that they are widely different from the sketches based on a person’s self-description.
Or, from the tagline of the campaign: it’s not “you are more beautiful than you think”; it’s “you are more beautiful than you think“.
The message isn’t that women should place greater value on our physical beauty (despite voice-over interview snippets to the contrary), but that we should stop internalizing our own distortions of our self-identity.
Ultimately, what I think troubles feminists like Jazz is that physical appearance matters — for men, for women, for just about everyone. Jazz is frustrated by a subject’s comment at the end of the video:
And actually, it almost seems to remind us how vital it is to know that we fit society’s standard of attractiveness . At the end of the experiment, one of the featured participants shares what I find to be the most disturbing quote in the video and what Dove seems to think is the moral of the story as she reflects upon what she’s learned, and how problematic it is that she hasn’t been acknowledging her physical beauty: It’s troubling,” she says as uplifting music swells in the background. “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”
What you look like should not affect the choices that you make. It should certainly not affect the friends you make—the friends that wouldn’t want to be in relationship with you if you did not meet a certain physical standard are not the friends that you want to have. Go out for jobs that you want, that you’re passionate about. Don’t let how good looking you feel like you are affect the way way that you treat your children. And certainly do not make how well you feel you align with the strict and narrow “standard” that the beauty industry and media push be critical to your happiness, because you will always be miserable. You will always feel like you fall short, because those standards are designed to keep you constantly pressured into buying things like make up and diet food and moisturizer to reach an unattainable goal. Don’t let your happiness be dependent on something so fickle and cruel and trivial. You should feel beautiful, and Dove was right about one thing: you are more beautiful than you know. But please, please hear me: you are so, so much more than beautiful.
Women clearly need to fight against this undue emphasis placed upon our physical appearance over our intellectual and professional skillset. We aren’t just pretty people and shouldn’t be treated (or treat ourselves) as such.
But, I would also assert that the quest by some feminists to completely eliminate the impact of physical appearance on self-perception, self-identity, and societal treatment is, in essence, a quest for pure truth. Women, like all humans, are physical beings, and the simple fact that each of us bear a unique physical appearance will impact our participation in the world around us. Male or female, how we look shapes who we are and how we think of ourselves, and will certainly impact how people treat us.
I can’t help but draw an analogy to race. To me, the argument that we can move towards a “post-looks” or “post-attractiveness” society sounds a lot like the flawed concept of a “post-racial” society wherein people purportedly don’t see racial difference. I have always had a problem with this notion on two counts: 1) being — and appearing — a (specifically phenotypically East Asian) Asian-American woman is a fundamental part of my self-identity and how I perceive myself; and 2) I wear my racial/ethnic identity on my skin, and am treated by others in a unique way because of it. My appearance — racially — is immediately obvious and impacts every social interaction I have with others (no matter how subtly). It influences my very presence in the world.
When people meet me, they don’t see a person with vague, non-descript, racial appearance. If they say they do, they are lying. I’m going to go out on a limb and say there are no colour-blind people. Every time a person notices I’m not White; every time they wonder what “brand” of Asian I am; every time they ask me what language(s) I speak or where I grew up; they are racializing me. I don’t necessarily say this as an indictment (although it can sometimes be). I say this as a simple statement of fact about my life.
How I look totally influences my life.
The simple truth that physical appearance matters when it comes to race is even evident in Jazz’s post (as it is in mine). As I noted above, Jazz makes a quick assertion about the races of the various study participants, based on their physical appearances. Shelly, Lani and Maria — the three women of colour whose portraits are featured on the Dove site — are singled out for their racial tokenism; thus, in race, the physical appearances of these women clearly matter. They have clearly influenced how these women are treated by the world around them. They have certainly influenced how feminists are judging the racial comprehensiveness of the Dove campaign.
Perhaps this is why I’m not all that troubled by the notion that my physical appearance, in general, will also shape how others see me. To me, the suggestion that more fundamental aspects of physical appearance such as hair colour or jaw shape or basic facial symmetry should have no impact on one’s social interactions when racial phenotypes clearly do strikes me as fallacious, and simply inconsistent with my own experiences as a person. I can’t help but feel that folks who advocate an end to looks-based treatment are speaking from a place of racial privilege, wherein the privilege allows for an absence of noticeably altered treatment in the world based on racial physical appearance, and so there’s an assumption that non-racial physical appearance can be similarly unimpactful.
Now, like I said above, I clearly do not support boiling a woman down to only her appearance. And, of course, Westernized conventions of beauty are clearly too Euro-centrically narrow. I agree with Jazz’s basic take-home message: we women are so much more than beautiful.
But, I would also hazard to say this: we are also beautiful. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. There’s nothing shameful in that.
I suggest that rather than to argue against the very concept of physical beauty existing in this world, that we instead work towards expanding our strict and narrow parameters of what we define as physical beauty, and in so doing, de-emphasize its impact on our perceived self-worth (as men and women).
Because, in the end, this shouldn’t be about shifting our focus from one isolated characteristic of ourselves to another. This can only lead to a different form of distortion. Instead, we should promote holistic self-image, and this must necessarily include the fact that we all have physical bodies with unique — and yes, often beautiful — appearances.
The third victim in a photo she shared of herself on social media websites.
The third victim of Monday’s devastating Boston Marathon bombing has finally been identified (sort of): she was a Chinese national originally from Shenyang, and was in the United States enrolled as a graduate student at Boston University studying Mathematics and Statistics. She was at the Boston Marathon on Monday, along with two friends, to watch runners cross the finish line.
The Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China confirms that one Chinese citizen was unfortunately killed in the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15th 2013. At the request of her family, the victim’s personal information will not be disclosed. Another Chinese citizen is among the injured and is in stable condition now after surgery.
The Consulate dispatched a work team to Boston after the bombing, headed by Deputy Consul General Ruiming Zhong. The team visited the injured in hospital this morning.
The Consulate has contacted the two families and will provide all neccessary assistance to them.
Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy.
CNN also reports that thousands have posted messages of support on the victim’s final post on Weibo, which shows the graduate student enjoying a simple breakfast of fruit and bread the morning of the Boston Marathon.
Boston University has also confirmed that one of the victim’s friends, Zhou Danling, also a student at BU and a Chinese national, was wounded on Monday. The third friend was apparently uninjured.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of all the victims of Monday’s horrific attack.
This is the heartwarming story about how a bunch of White Portlandians went on a bike ride with an Asian American, and discovered they were racist. Picture courtesy of Veloprovo member Nicholas Caleb
As if we needed any evidence that all people, whether Far Right extremists or self-described liberal progressives, can be guilty of racism.
Last week, a local Portland-based cycling ”tactical urbanists” group launched a weekly group ride bicycle-based “fight against auto-centric infrastructure” that they called “Veloprovo“. The ride was designed to tour Portland streets that the organizers deemed “complete” and designed to accommodate bicycles, and to also “challenge the ‘tyranny of pollution‘ that the ‘capitalist automobile’ has wrought upon urban space”, while also planting broccoli shoots and sunflower seeds on the side of the freeway as “an act of rebellion”.
I shit you not.
Whatever happened to just meeting a group of friends at the local bike shop and riding down the shoreline just for the fun of it?
(Aside: I actually agree with the sentiment of Veloprovo. I’m an occasional cyclist who also finds the design of urban streets baffling when it comes to sharing the road between bikes and cars. I just find the left-wing pretension of this “advocacy” really eye-rollingly dumb. Planting seeds is not a rebellious act. It’s gardening.)
Anyways, in Veloprovo’s original write-up about their inaugural ride, ride organizers posted a photo of an Asian man who joined the group. This man was unknown to the organizers, and stood out to them, presumably because he looked different?
How different, you ask? Well, he was wearing a LiveStrong t-shirt, and according to other attendees, “he had all brand new “stereotypical biker gear,” didn’t speak with anyone and was filming everything.” And, oh yeah, he’s Asian.
Clearly, he doesn’t fit in, right?
Organizers went on to wildly speculate that this Asian gentleman was actually a local, prominent police captain named Chris Uehara, who was an undercover infiltrator secretly monitoring the groups activities, which was proof to participants that Portland is a “police state”.
Original side-by-side photo posted by Veloprovo organizer, Jonathan Maus.
The same man is pictured in a more head-on image, where it is obvious that he bears little resemblance to Captain Uehara.
The only resemblance between Uehara and the LiveStrong man? They are both stocky Asian men.
This shit is racist.
Why? Because here are a few incredibly asinine assumptions that have to be made in a person’s mind in order to conclude that this unknown person must be the local police captain:
This Asian man doesn’t belong at your ride.
This Asian man must be up to no good.
All Asian people look the same.
There’s only one stocky Asian man in all of Portland, and he’s the police captain.
Police captains in Portland have the time and/or the desire show up undercover at your local “anarchist” bike ride in order to keep tabs on you and your group.
And seriously, thinking any one of the above five things is enough to get a pretty big “fuck you”. But all five and simultaneously?
Of course, there’s absolutely no way that the LiveStrong man was perhaps some random Asian dude who went out on this local group ride because it was, y’know, a public group ride. Perhaps he was new to the area and looking to make some friends while seeing the sights? Perhaps he had recently just sold his car and purchased a brand-new bike and associated gear in order to get around the relatively bike-friendly city that is Portland, Oregon while being a little more active? Perhaps he didn’t talk to other people because he arrived at the group and immediately realized he wasn’t dressed right? Or perhaps because he didn’t speak English very well and felt like taking time to warm up to the group? Or, perhaps because he felt a little uncomfortable because everyone around him thought he was a fucking undercover cop?
In short, the average person, armed with basic critical thinking skills, and who is not a racist douchebag* (see below) would realize that the Livestrong man was not Captain Chris Uehara.
But, of course, Maus writes:
The man in these photos appears to be the same man wearing a PPB uniform and identified as Cpt. Chris Uehara in a Portland Public Schools video from September 2012. Tracy Mattner was on the Veloprovo ride Sunday. She spoke to the man and is sure it’s Cpt. Uehara. “I spoke to Officer Uehara, who identified himself by his real first name, Chris.” she shared via email today. “He did not identify himself as an officer, but claimed to be a bicycle activist and enthusiast. When I asked how he heard about the event, he simply said he was at the “Tar Sands Ride.” Later, during group introductions, he stated that he had sold his car to buy the brand new bike he was riding.”
Another person on the ride, Nicholas Caleb, says having an undercover officer on the ride is a sign that we live in a “police state.” Caleb says the group has publicized everything they’ve done, held public meetings, videotaped their speeches, and so on. “You’d think when you do that, there’s no way you’d be the target of police surveillance.” “It’s scary,” he added, “But, we’re going to keep going forward with our positive ideas and creative energy.” Caleb said the man he suspects of being Cpt. Uehara was suspicious because he had all brand new “stereotypical biker gear,” didn’t speak with anyone and was filming everything. It’s worth remembering that the Portland Police has a history of secretly monitoring bicycle-based activism.
It turns out that days after Veloprovo posted their original article, local reporters from the Oregonian Janie Har and Helen Jung picked up the story and accused Veloprovo of racism. Jonathan Maus (who tweets at @BikePortland) unleashed a flurry of defensive tweets that first accused journalists of not knowing the context, and that then rationalize his conclusion by saying that people are “evolved to notice ppl that look different. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Yes, people of Veloprovo, there is absolutely something wrong with that. There’s something totally wrong about singling a guy out because of his race, and automatically assuming he doesn’t belong.
I know. This is a level of stupid that amazes. But this story has a happy ending. Why? Because, it turns out that the self-important Jonathan Maus was oh-so-very-publicly wrong on this one. It turns out that the LiveStrong man named “Chris” who showed up at Veloprovo ride was not Captain Chris Uehara; he was Krisapon Chaisawat. Having recently moved from Key West, Kris is a 35 year old food server who doesn’t speak English too well (thus why he wasn’t very talkative during the group ride) and had joined the Veloprovo group to “meet people”.
Krisapon Chaisawat is pictured here in a picture from his Facebook page.
2.I eat gummy bears by tearing them limb from limb and eating their heads last.
3.I cried when Spock died in Star Trek II
4.I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur.
5.If you asked me to tell you my favorite movie, I would have a hard time not saying Titanic
6.When I die, I want a steaming hot Reuben sandwich shoved in my mouth during the open-casket part of the funeral.
7.When I was little, I pretended my bike was a horse named Satan.
8.i’m single but it does mean im gay
(Aside: Kris, if you ever read this, I too cried when Spock died in Star Trek II, I too like the movie Titanic even if it’s horribly cliched to love it, I decapitate my gummy bears before I eat them, and I now really want to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would like to be a dinosaur.)
Kris’ wife (presumably an indication that #8 has been rectified) saw Maus’ Veloprovo post last week and urged her husband to contact the group and clear up the confusion racism.
I regret the misunderstanding. I went with my gut because I felt the story was worth publishing with the information I had. However, I published it without 100% confirmation about the man’s identity. That was a mistake. When I published it, I didn’t fully respect or appreciate how it might make people feel if I was wrong. For that I am deeply sorry.
Maus has also offered to have Kris join them on future rides and to buy him a drink. Because, y’know, alcohol solves all of the world’s racism.
Thanks, President Obama.
In the end, Maus is just happy to have “learned something” from this experience. Like, y’know, that not all Asians look the same. Or that, y’know, the police don’t care enough about your little “tactical urbanist” group of sunflower-planting cyclists to send the damned police captain undercover to spy on it.
Because, after all, we people of colour are just here to teach you these things. We aim to please.
Never mind that this all is stuff you should have already known.
Update: Okay, so I’ve had a chance to read Jonathan Maus’ apology posts and his wrap-up of his meeting with Captain Chris Uehara. I also got a chance to read this post by Veloprovo participant Jess Hayden. And, I gotta say that I’m impressed. Maus and Hayden acknowledge their privilege and apologize unconditionally for their roles in this fiasco. While I cringe at the concept of boiling this all down to a “teachable moment”, it’s nice to see some of the folks involved chastise their fellow bloggers and commentors for trying to rationalize and justify what they acknowledge as a product of internalized racism. So, I take back the “douchebag” comments above; these folks are not douchebags, just misguided.
Let’s just not let this happen again, m’kay, guys?
Yesterday, President Obama signed into law a continuing resolution aimed at keeping the federal government going amidst budget talks. However, embedded within the nearly 800 page resolution — HR933 — is Section 735, a provision that has become popularly known as the “Monsanto Protection Act”. Here is the text of Section 735 in full:
SEC. 735. In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.
Yet, I find this talking point disingenuous. If I’m reading Section 735 correctly, what’s actually being said is this: if a seed (genetically-engineered or otherwise) is petitioned to the Secretary of Agriculture’s office as needing to be regulated, that the unregulated (but legal) sale of the seed shall be allowed to continue until such time as the Secretary of Agriculture has time to investigate whether or not the petition is warranted.
It doesn’t hand over power to Monsanto, or any other company in the business of producing genetically-engineered food. It simply gives food-growers and developers the ability to do business until the matter can be resolved. Or, in other words, it simply establishes that a food is regulated when the Secretary of Agriculture’s office can rule that a food should be regulated, not when there is a proposal submitted that a food should be regulated.
So, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
Look, I get it. This whole controversy isn’t based on farmers’ rights, or on economics. It’s based on mass hysteria that arises when people hear “genetically modified food” and get an immediate mental image of this:
There are too many critics of GMOs that believe, or at least perpetuate the common fear, that genetically modified foods are some sort of disease-ridden mutant byproduct of science gone horribly wrong. They picture ears of corn that glow in the dark, beef that can cause kids to prematurely undergo puberty, and tomatoes that grow to the size of houses.
These ideas couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The field of genetically-engineered food has two primary focuses: 1) to increase the efficiency and yield of crops with a particular emphasis on modifying foods to survive climates unfriendly to conventional agricultural practices, and 2) to increase the nutritional content of commonly-eaten foods to promote human survival and health without having to significantly modify diet, particularly in areas of the world where food is already hard to come by, let alone sufficient food to meet nutritional demands.
So, for example, genetically modified rice strains developed in part through the University of Arizona are significantly more resistant to drought than unmodified rice plants, producing healthy crops even with little watering.
The middle genetically-modified rice plant is being grown under drought conditions, compared to an unmodified rice plant on the right.
Sure, we’ve all seen the commercials: $1 a day could feed X number of starving children. But, think of the potency if we could export agricultural technology to these regions of the world, so that we’re not just feeding folks who need food, but arming folks with the tools to be able to grow the food to feed themselves.
Yet, I was shocked to read on Wikipedia in research for this blog post, that some critics of GMOs actually argue — unethically, in my opinion — that using genetically-engineered crops to help solve the world famine problem is counter-productive because this only encourages a global and unsustainable population boom. Implicitly, hungry people in the Third World should be allowed to die to keep the global population of humans low.
People who think the world can afford to ignore technology that increases agricultural yield are people who’ve never had to struggle with country-wide hunger. These are people who are used to a grocery store on every corner, and a McDonald’s drive-through a short car-ride away. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the United States and Canada, as well as parts of Europe, forget how good we have it when it comes to food; we take for granted a food abundance that others couldn’t even imagine as being normal.
I remember when I was a kid, my uncle — a well-educated, modestly affluent architect living in Taipei, Taiwan — came to visit us in Canada. I remember that we took him grocery shopping one afternoon. This supermarket — a Sun Valley grocery store (a Canadian chain that I just found out is now closed — was one of the highlights of my uncle’s trip. He walked into the front door and was overwhelmed by the piles of fresh produce, just sitting out for the choosing. He couldn’t believe the amount of it, the diversity of it, the freshness and the size, and how most of it was just waiting to be purchased or even — god forbid — thrown away. My uncle had great access to food in Taipei, and even he couldn’t believe how plentiful crops are in the West. A trip to Sun Valley market was one of his long-standing traditions every time he came to visit afterwards.
Yet, when’s the last time the produce aisle at your local Stop & Shop brought a tear of joy to your eye?
The second criticism against genetically-modified foods is that it’s unsafe. This criticism I find to be particularly spurious. The scientific community has pretty much reached a consensus on this subject: genetically-engineered foods are just as safe as non-engineered foods for human consumption; which is to say, there’s no scientific evidence supporting the notion that GMOs cause cancer or some other such nonsense.
And indeed, if one takes a minute to think about this, one sees how the conclusion makes sense. All we need to do is consider what a GMO actually is, and how it’s made, to realize that the risk to humans is low. In short, a scientist finds a gene from within a plant’s existing genome or within a related plant (or, occasionally but rarely, animal) species and introduces a modification into the target plant’s genome to either modify the existing gene or to get it to express the new gene. The scientist does this by injecting the plant with the new genetic material, and growing offspring that contain the specific, designed mutation.
An engineered plant is not dangerous. It contains no active virus or other particle remnants of the gene delivery system. It is, in essence, a rice plant that has been designed to express a special gene to alter the plant’s behaviour so that it behaves in a desirable fashion.
And I’m pretty sure there’s no interest in generating an ear of corn with evil eyes and a toothy grin.
I should know; I spend my days working with genetically-engineered organisms, and I’m no more afraid of them as I am of a regular old house mouse.
Using genetic-engineering to produce a mutant strain of plant is no different than if conventional cross-fertilization techniques were used to generate a mutant strain — a technique that has given us, among other foods, the pomelo, the grapefruit, and virtually every kind of apple you’ve ever eaten. Incidentally, this is also how every strain of dog ever was anyone’s pet came to be. Yet, people are afraid of genetic engineering when in the guise of science, and are not even remotely alarmed when it comes in the guise of agriculture.
Eating a genetically-engineered rice plant is no more dangerous than eating a head of broccoli; both are mutant forms of their native plants that have been engineered (in one case, directly, and in the other case through generations of specialized breeding) to favour certain traits over others. Neither of these plants will give you — nor should they ever be suspected of giving you — cancer. I mean, really, there’s about as much danger of this as there is of eating a stalk of celery and being afraid you’re going to turn into one.
All that being said, there’s obviously going to be some lasting concerns over the integration of genetically-engineered foods into our society. Do I think that genetically-engineered foods should be labelled? Absolutely, but along with a label describing the extent of the engineering. I think that informed consumers breeds responsible consumers.
And, certainly, I don’t think there should be any measure to eliminate federal power to regulate GMOs, or any foods. Not only should the federal government be able to regulate foods in the event of a demonstrated health and safety risk, but regulation is also essential to mitigate other real dangers of GMOs. For example, crops engineered to produce antibiotics that reduce disease risks that can wipe out an entire season’s crops can also have profound impacts on the local biodiversity, and runs the risk of producing antibiotic-resistant strains of disease. Our society already suffers from an over-dependence on antibiotic usage; its infiltration into the agricultural industry is worrisome. Finally, robust crops run the danger of becoming invasive to their local environment; this is also a risk that can be minimized through regulation.
But, I’ve had quite enough of the hype and fear-mongering over genetically-modified foods, particularly when the drum that is widely sounded is so scientifically unfounded. And I really can’t stand the argument that misguided fears over genetically-engineered foods trumps worldwide hunger, and people who are dying from it.