Laurie Toby Edison

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Old Navy: Blatant Racism and Deniability in One Commercial

Laurie and Debbie say:

Old Navy has launched a series of commercials and advertising featuring department-store mannequins (which they call “supermodelquins”) as the main characters. In keeping with the standards of our times, most of the supermodelquins are white, and a few appear to be African-American. In an astonishingly offensive move, one of the commercials features a black woman whose clothes are suddenly and unexpectedly ripped off, and replaced by black “modesty bars.”

Watch at your own risk.

Harry Allen wrote about this in Media Assassin, and he said so much of what needs to be said, especially well. Read his whole piece, especially the introduction about James Baldwin, Obama, and the myth of post-racial America. Here are some of his pithy comments on the commercial itself:

I wasn’t waiting around to, figuratively, see a Black female’s clothes ripped away in front of her husband and children, above, as her mate futilely tries to rescue some of her dignity and shield her nude body from the gaze of the only white man there, right. (”Sweets!” he exclaims.)

Of course, except for the fluorescent store lights and cheap, made-in-Mexico clothing, the preceding paragraph sounds like any number of racial confrontations with white men that Black males inevitably lost. In a nation where the Black female was widely portrayed as hot, lustful, and aggressive, and her body endlessly and transgressively sexualized, the Black mannequin’s sassy, smiling retort to her own violation—”Oh, what: Like you never seen plastic before!”—affirms, symbolically, that, you know: They like it.

Many Black people will be frustrated by the responses that white people often have, both to articles like this one, and to perceptions of racism in, what to white people, are these silly, little, seemingly insignificant corners of life. (”You people see racism/em> everywhere!”, Caucasians quickly claim.) But Black people should expect this, because without some sort of strong disruption, many white people will not see racism.

He goes on to explain quite clearly why this is true, including the memorable comment:

I think many Black people believe that white people who practice racism will stop doing so if they get to know more Black people, learn more Black history, and have a few home-cooked meals with us. I don’t really agree, but I do believe, as a mentor whose ideas I respect has often said, “Anything people do, people can stop doing.”

One of the insidiously nasty aspects of the claim that Obama’s election makes America post-racial is that it reinforces the already-strong false justification, “Oh, it wasn’t about race!” or “Oh, we just made that mannequin black by accident. It could have been any of the other commercials!” Sure, it could. We haven’t seen all the other commercials, but we bet that none of them would evoke the near-naked woman for sale on the slave block the way this one does. And the horrifying thing is that the people who wrote, and approved, and filmed the commercial probably don’t even realize how racism is coloring their choices. It just “looked all right” to them. “See, we’re including Black people! We’re not racists!”

(They’re probably going to say the same thing about the [white] mannequin legs sticking up out of the trash. “We’re not sexists! That’s just what happens to old mannequins. We’re just telling the truth.”)

We believe, with Harry Allen and his mentor, that anything people do, people can stop doing. We also believe that what people do, people won’t stop doing without pressure. Old Navy is a division of the Gap, and can be reached at

Two Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(650) 952-4400
custserv@oldnavy.com

Debbie found this on the Facebook group Whites Overcoming Racism through Knowledge.

5 Responses to “Old Navy: Blatant Racism and Deniability in One Commercial”

  1. JupiterPluvius Says:

    the preceding paragraph sounds like any number of racial confrontations with white men that Black males inevitably lost.

    Wait, WHAT? Is that a typo for “Black females,” or is the writer really making this all about the men in the situation?

  2. janet Says:

    Historian John Hope Franklin, who died today at 94, wrote in 1993: “To suggest that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line is not to ignore the changes that have occurred in this as well as in other centuries. It is merely to take notice of the obvious fact that the changes have not been sufficient to eliminate the color line as a problem, arguably the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history.”

  3. Laurie Says:

    JupiterPluvius,

    That’s a good point.

  4. Diana Says:

    I’ve been assuming steadily that the entire concept of a “post-racial America” is a running, not really funny, joke. While I certainly didn’t gather racism (I can be quite oblivious) I do find the ads creepy and offensive.

    Many other interpretations can be laid on those ads, both positive and negative. I see the expression of nudity as sexual confidence, and I see that as positive.

    I would also hope that Harry Allen understands that, with all the difficulties people face in resolving racial perspectives, men in general are hardly an endangered species.

    All the same, I find the adds cloying and creepy. Considering that I bought a TV to keep advertising from poisoning my brain, I’m disturbed at how often I’ve wound up seeing those ugly commercials.

  5. yellowhammer Says:

    I was immediately horrified about that commercial. I don’t see how it couldn’t be seen as sexist and racist. The WHOLE THING. From the part where the black woman mannequin wishes she could have the white woman mannequin’s legs, to the part where the black man mannequin cannot shield his wife from the objectifying gaze of the white man mannequin. The whole thing is disgusting. I can’t see how they can possibly make excuses for this one.

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