Is This T-Shirt Racist?
June 8, 2017 4:57 PM   Subscribe

My 5 year-old daughter pulled this shirt out of the closet to wear to school today. I took one look at it and asked her to pick a different shirt. My wife thinks I'm overreacting (but she grew up in an ethnically homogeneous country), am I?

The shirt was a souvenir from someone who I am certain doesn't think it is racist either.

Bonus question, if the shirt is racist what do I do with it?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm to Society & Culture (59 answers total)
Holy crap no she cant wear that. I think maaaybe it's just supposed to be a black bunny or something, but it really looks like blackface, and "blacky" doesn't help. Just throw it away.
posted by brainmouse at 4:59 PM on June 8 [96 favorites]

I would not let my child wear it. Take it as a teaching opportunity. Offer to get the kid a different shirt and throw that one away.
posted by SyraCarol at 5:02 PM on June 8 [6 favorites]

I think that's a black sheep so it's an edge case but yeah, sub a white sheep/bunny with "go go Whitey" and you have your answer, which is that the message may not be the best message plastered across your little one's chest In These Times.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 5:02 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

I grew up in an ethnically homogenous US state and I call racist.
posted by slateyness at 5:06 PM on June 8 [6 favorites]

It is 100x times more racist than I assumed it was going to be based on the description. No way she can wear that. Mega racist.
posted by Jairus at 5:08 PM on June 8 [72 favorites]

It's not literally racist, but yeah it's evocative enough that you should probably throw it out.
posted by so fucking future at 5:08 PM on June 8 [31 favorites]

Yeah, that's unfortunate. I don't think it's intended to be racist, but the words on the banner are not a good idea. I'm wondering if it's from a company that's not centered in an English-speaking country.

I would recommend turning this shirt into a delightful craft project; cut across the shirt just under the banner, sew an end shut, stuff, sew the other end, and presto! A fun squishable pillow, and your small child still gets to enjoy her sheepy friend.
posted by redsparkler at 5:10 PM on June 8 [43 favorites]

"Intentions" aside it literally has an ethnic slur on it, throw it away.
posted by wreckingball at 5:20 PM on June 8 [11 favorites]

You can just throw it away.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 5:25 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

(Pillow example, in case I didn't make it clear that you would completely remove the words)
posted by redsparkler at 5:26 PM on June 8 [10 favorites]

It looks like it's probably referencing a children's book or TV show or something, maybe one from another country where it wouldn't read as racist? I tried to look it up but the search results got racist real fast so no.

But even if I'm right about that, this is a case where I don't think intent matters - it's going to read as racist to enough people that I would not let her wear it. This is a rare case where I think unless you can repurpose the shirt somehow in a way your kid will accept (cut-down version as a square on a quilt or something?), you really can't donate it and have to throw it away.
posted by Stacey at 5:27 PM on June 8 [8 favorites]

I grew up in an ethnically homogenous country (though not white), and I really dislike the current liberal outrage/callout-culture in the West with a passion

-- but jeez, no, that shirt belongs in the garbage.
posted by redlines at 5:27 PM on June 8 [15 favorites]

It is not intrinsically racist, and probably has no intention of being racist.

However, it may provoke reactions from people which will be very confusing to a 5 year old.

She may not comprehend the concepts, but she will likely be exposed to fleeting micro-expressions of disgust from adults ("WTF... oh, she is just a kid... but WTF").

So yes, the smart thing to do is make the pillow.

It reminds me of the national rugby team in New Zealand (the "All-Blacks"). Perfectly normal to Kiwis, but can cause double-takes when walking down an American main street. You'd have to be confident and be prepared to explain. A 5 year old does not need to have to deal with that.

(I don't think it's blackface - it's a lamb that happens to be, like some are, black in color)
posted by metaseeker at 5:30 PM on June 8 [16 favorites]

I'm SO impressed, because I too thought this could not be that bad + my views on what are bigoted or cultural appropriation differ greatly because I basically grew up in a melting pot and my family is mixed and and and...

Congratulations. You own a children's shirt that is super racist. It's entirely in the style of early 20th century racist illustrations and cartoons. Wow. I mean, I don't know if that's what the image was meant to evoke, but that's EXACTLY what it evokes.
posted by jbenben at 5:32 PM on June 8 [24 favorites]

You could cut it into pieces and use it as cleaning rags. Definitely don't let your child wear it.
posted by areaperson at 5:34 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

I'm wondering if she could sew something over the text banner and improve it enough to be OK... Or maybe make a pillow out of the lower portion of the shirt, showing just the character, cutting off the top part -- if she likes it that much.

Not _sure_ this would be OK, just putting it out there as a possibility.
posted by amtho at 5:37 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Another vote for holy shit yes that's racist.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:40 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

For those curious, this is a contemporary drawing from Japanese illustrator Utako Yamada who has a tea shop named "Karel Capek" which collaborated with Uniqlo on t-shirts. So probably a case of not realizing something is bad rather than intentional racism, but still.
posted by acidic at 5:45 PM on June 8 [44 favorites]

I'm agog at how just NOT OKAY that shirt is. Please throw this away.
posted by meese at 5:52 PM on June 8

For kids stuff at that age, you get rid of it by just getting rid of it. Just toss it out without a second thought. No one can remember where kids' clothing had got off to. Don't bother with crafts or donating.
posted by amanda at 5:53 PM on June 8 [16 favorites]

It looks like it's probably referencing a children's book or TV show or something, maybe one from another country where it wouldn't read as racist?

This was my guess too. [On preview: Sounds like it's a Japanese designer? Yeah, it's probably more of a language/ignorance issue.]
Regardless of the intentions or original context, you KNOW how it's going to come across here.

The original creator may have the excuse of "i didn't know" or"it wasn't intended as racist" or "it's not racist in our society." But you--and your kid--don't have that excuse. Creating a [potentially] racist image and choosing to wear that image are distinct decisions.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 6:01 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

If she loves the shirt, make a pillow out of it and change the lamb's name. Use it as an opportunity to talk about race in the US—no doubt, there will be many, many such conversations over the years.

Fwiw, my first reaction was "technically, not racist" (probably based on some children's book about a lamb named "Blackie"—a common name for black dogs when I was a kid and that had nothing to do with racism, i.e., this is back in the day of "colored" people), but I wouldn't waste a half-second arguing that case.
posted by she's not there at 6:02 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

What you have there is a racist rag, not a t-shirt. No explanation needed to a 4 yo. If she asks, tell her it either got lost or got messed up in the washer.
posted by AugustWest at 6:15 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Burn after reading.
posted by Dashy at 6:20 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

Hard no on that shirt. (For reference, that's a slur my racist grandfather used to use. Very intentionally racist.)

Cut it up. Throw out the text portion. Ask your daughter what she would like to do with the rest (after its "tragic washing machine accident").
posted by mcduff at 6:23 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

No explanation needed to your girl right now, just have her wear something different and quietly throw it away.

It's enough to know that it will make some people uncomfortable when they see it (and it surely will, it looks like blackface and it has a word that sounds like a slur and apparently was.) No upside, many downsides, just quietly toss.

I don't think you should make a pillow either. Nobody needs to see that in her bedroom when they come over.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:27 PM on June 8

Yoiks. Whatever the original context, that won't play anywhere in the English-speaking west. Worse than I had imagined.
posted by frumiousb at 6:32 PM on June 8

The shirt is terrible, another vote no. I lived in Japan and fwiw it is incredibly homogenous and xenophobic. I had numerous conversations with students about stuff like this - likely they're well aware they're referencing race and fail to understand why it's a problem. I'd kind of expect better from a big (now international) company like Uniqlo but whatever (disappointing tho). Anyway.

Good grief you don't need to destroy the whole shirt. Don't mefites know how to patch jeans? If she really likes the shirt just cut the flag out and patch it with some cute fabric from the back; or get something opaque and iron-on and cover it - you can buy rolls of iron on stuff and scrap fabric and do it no-sew. My kid definitely owns clothes he'd notice missing (and others he wouldn't) so whether it's worth it is a YMMV. Just "disappearing" it means you lose the educational opportunity too - both to talk about race and to teach some mending skills.

I wouldn't want the whole thing on a pillow, but you could probably make a really cute softie (doll) if you cut out the lamb&car(only) with a wide seam, cutting through both pieces of fabric. Put them inside-out, stitch together, turn right-side out, and stuff (and stitch up the last little bit).
posted by jrobin276 at 6:49 PM on June 8 [12 favorites]

I think it probably wasn't meant to be (it looks like a dog named Blacky, or something? Maybe a bunny), but I don't think she can wear it in public.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:51 PM on June 8

In a parallel, better universe it's just a cute animal but in this one it's racist and makes me sad. Glad you asked.
posted by soakimbo at 7:29 PM on June 8 [4 favorites]

(It's not just the word - the lamb/bunny whatever by itself is also Not Okay). Whether or not it intends to, it references minstrel blackface in a big way. The entire front decal would have to go, entirely, if you are going to reuse it or patch it somehow).
posted by brainmouse at 7:38 PM on June 8 [8 favorites]

I think the sheep on its own is just a black sheep and totally fine if you cut or otherwise block out the wording on the flag.
posted by yeahlikethat at 8:04 PM on June 8 [4 favorites]

posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:07 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I took one look at that and thought "This is probably Japanese…", having seen many other examples of unintentionally racist T-shirts when I lived there. Being such a homogenous society with few immigrants, the T-shirt would be read completely differently over there. They will see the bunny as being cute like a Sanrio character, and they appreciate the English text more for the shape of the letterforms than for the content. (Much like Americans with tattoos of Chinese or Japanese characters.) Not everyone there is familiar with the long history of images like this in the Western world used to degrade and oppress, so I'm afraid your wife may not understand at first why you're upset about it. But she is an adult and hopefully will understand once you explain the hurt a black person would feel upon seeing such an image in this day and age, and the startled reaction it's causing even among non-black Westerners on the Internet. You may want to show her some of the old images so she can see the similarities for herself.
posted by Soliloquy at 8:21 PM on June 8 [6 favorites]

FWIW I just saw the picture and immediately thought "Holy crap that is a blackface cartoon" before I even noticed the words.
posted by gatorae at 8:31 PM on June 8 [5 favorites]

You know, to be the devil's advocate here -- nah, just kidding. It's racist as hell. Get rid of it yesterday.
posted by naju at 10:24 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

I would not discuss with your daughter but I would discuss with your wife. She decidedly under-reacted here.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:34 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

Whaaaaat? No no no, super fucking racist. Maybe if this image was part of a larger context there may be an explanation, but divorced of any story, it's just super fucking racist full stop.

(Even if there were a larger context, I'd be uncomfortable with this image.)
posted by desuetude at 11:50 PM on June 8

Oh, as for what to do with it, I believe you shove it into the back of a drawer of off-seaons clothes storage for about a year, until your kiddo has obviously outgrown it, and then you quietly throw it in the garbage. You don't donate it to Goodwill or the equivalent because it's super fucking racist. If you must, say that you gave it to Goodwill or the equivalent but actually throw it in the trash. I totally condone that white lie. But it would be better to say "no, this is super fucking racist and we're intentionally throwing it away."
posted by desuetude at 11:54 PM on June 8

I saw that and visibly cringed! Another vote for no way, chuck it out!
posted by Nilehorse at 1:21 AM on June 9

Throw it out. I vote for this answer if your daughter needs one "some people use mean words to make other people feel bad, and blacky has been one of them. I'm sure Gifter didn't know about this word. But I do. In our family we try not to make people feel bad, so this isn't a good shirt to wear."

(I had this conversation with my son when my parents gifted him with Little Black Sambo. (!!!) I think it's ok to teach our kids this stuff. If we were people of colour we wouldn't have a choice so why, as a white person, should I seek to protect my child from any whisper of racism?)

Good catch.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:41 AM on June 9 [16 favorites]

P.S. I think did have to talk about colour because my kid asked, so be prepared if you go this route!
posted by warriorqueen at 4:42 AM on June 9

Like others, I thought there was going to be way more nuance here than there was. No no no no no no no.
posted by corb at 5:04 AM on June 9

It's an amusing souvenir from Japan, but it is 100% not okay to let your child wear.
posted by empath at 5:08 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

With the location in your profile, absolutely not. Please do not impose the difficult and stressful conversation about cultural understandings of race that this shirt is on your kid. Five years old is definitely not an age that is developmentally ready for that conversation and, where you are, this shirt is a hideously bad way to start it.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:14 AM on June 9

Like a lot of other people I wasn't expecting a shirt design so... obviously racist. I was expecting some cultural appropriation or something vaguely questionable, but this is not vague. I literally said "Holy shit..." out loud when I saw the picture of the shirt.

This shirt is incredibly not okay.

I'm very inclined to upcycle and reinvent things, I'm a big fan of thrifting and then reworking them, but honestly, I'd be inclined to just get rid of this one.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:04 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Add me to this list of people who expected something a little less blatant, and then clicked on the link and thought "Holy shit, that's racist."
posted by thejanna at 7:15 AM on June 9

I grew up in an ethnically homogenous country (though not white), and I really dislike the current liberal outrage/callout-culture in the West with a passion

I came to say this... and advise you to let your daughter wear the tee-shirt with pride.

We, black people, are not some delicate young things expecting you to walk on eggshells, lest we be offended.
posted by Kwadeng at 7:20 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I respect what Kwadeng is saying above, but I also, as a person who grew up in the American South, and as someone who lives here now -- I think that this particular shirt would be disrespectful to wear in terms of my friends and people who are important to me. I live and work in a super diverse city and I just -- would not.

At best it looks tone-deaf and at worse you come off like some ass who can't get rid of his little-black-boy yard statue. According to how I was raised, it's rude if you know better to do something like this.

Clearly we all know better.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:56 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Whew, yeah, I would not let my child wear that shirt.

Maaayyybe some people would give it a pass, but then again there is the possibility that you and/or your child will be scolded and shamed in public by some outraged individual. Why risk putting your child through that?

Even more likely your family will be judged by other families at daycare/school, and while you might not hear about it, you might quietly stop getting invited to stuff. No need to put your child through that either.

I would throw that shirt in the recycle bin.
posted by vignettist at 7:58 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Another vote for the image being offensive on its own. Throw it out proudly.
posted by BibiRose at 8:26 AM on June 9

Five-year-olds have the attention span of a hamster. Throw it away without a second thought. She won't even remember having it. If the person who gave it to her ever asks, say she grew out of it.

You might want to show this thread to your wife, however, so that you and she can be on the same page when situations like this come up again.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:38 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

> I came to say this... and advise you to let your daughter wear the tee-shirt with pride. We, black people, are not some delicate young things expecting you to walk on eggshells, lest we be offended.

I don't understand, what is the child being proud of? That someone thought kindly of her and brought her a present, sure. But at five years old, she is too young to recognize the racism of the image; if she understood that her t-shirt would hurt other people's feelings, she probably wouldn't want to wear it.

I don't see this as "callout culture" at all.
posted by desuetude at 8:39 AM on June 9 [8 favorites]

Even if it didn't offend black/Black people, it would rile up a lot of white people. Not worth it.
posted by amtho at 10:12 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]

I would pull this out of the wash and be horrified that the bleach got all over it or the washing machine ripped it to shreds and that now we have to throw it out and, oops, so sorry.

Because I was not expecting to see anything as racist as that shirt when I clicked. OMG. Throw it out and make sure it can never be worn by anyone else. I'm Canadian and I recognized that as a black face cartoon before I even read the text.
posted by shockpoppet at 1:41 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

It looks pretty unanimous that the shirt is racist so I'll arrange some kind of laundry accident for it. I did like the idea of repurposing it but we have too much stuff as is.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:55 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

I grew up in an ethnically homogenous country (though not white), and I really dislike the current liberal outrage/callout-culture in the West with a passion

I hear that. It can be a particularly exhausting time right now as people are clumsily and not-without-missteps attempting to wake up to the reality of racism and sexism in our culture. There was some outrage last year over a local cupcake place who had a cupcake that was black and white with an oreo inside and it was called "The President" or some such thing (during the time of Obama) and some white person said, " this racist?" And there was much outcry and general angst and then the owner, a black woman, came out and said, "It's not racist because I'm black and I just thought it was a fancy cupcake."

Now, who is right in that scenario? Sorry, "Oreo" does have connotations. And depending on your experience with that word, it can feel very racist indeed. I personally suspect that she was having a cultural in-joke with her naming of the cupcake but I also think it was maybe not the best idea. It made me think of Dave Chapelle talking about his growing discomfort with his fan-base, majority white, who would laugh uproariously at his black culture jokes. He started to wonder just what they were laughing at. Were they getting it? Or were they taking another kind of pleasure in skewering of black folks? Something he was not comfortable with.

That's where I see a shirt like this. If you know it can be misconstrued – by black folk, by well-meaning liberals, by racists – why even put your kid in that position? It's just a cartoon and wearing it in the face of your discomfort becomes more of a political statement than just going, "Ih. This is weird." and tossing it out.

Frankly, most messaging on kids' clothing, girls' clothing in particular, tends to be problematic. I think it ends up with kids having to have dumb conversations with adults on topics that they don't care about or know about.
posted by amanda at 9:16 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

I think the reason it brings blackface to mind is that white border around the sheep's head, because it makes it look like he's really white "underneath." So if you change your mind about tossing it and decide to switch out the flag, also take a black permanent marker and color that in.
posted by Jaie at 12:57 AM on June 11

Your shirt is not the only racially insensitive Utako Yamada design, unfortunately. Toss the lamb shirt.
posted by nicebookrack at 2:10 PM on June 15

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