Back in 1845, newspaper editor John O'Sullivan coined the term "Manifest Destiny" to describe the popular 19th century belief that white Americans had a divinely inspired duty to expand the nation west to the Pacific Ocean. Of course, the belief that Native Americans were culturally and racially inferior savages was at the heart of Manifest Destiny, and it resulted in their mass relocation, enslavement, and genocide. Fast-forward 167 years and that horrible history has become a fashion trend. Retailer The Gap has decided that selling a $30 black t-shirt with the word's "MANIFEST DESTINY" blazoned across the chest is cool.
The shirt, which is featured in the photo spread above, is the creation of designer Mark McNairy, who was chosen by GQ as one of the six Best New Menswear Designers in America. McNairy called his collection "the new basics." The head honchos at The Gap either flunked the basics of American history—or subscribe to the belief that it's just a t-shirt and folks shouldn't be so politically correct—because they gave McNairy's design the green light.
Fortunately, not everyone is as blind to the power of words as The Gap. According to Indian Country Today Media Network, activist and actress Renee Roman Nose—a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and descendant of survivors of several Native massacres—says the shirt is boycott-worthy. She sent a letter to the company, telling them that she won't be shopping at The Gap until the t-shirts are removed from stores.
"I am also inviting the more than 1700 people on my Facebook page to boycott your stores and inviting them to shop with their conscience," wrote Roman Nose. "In the past Gap has been known for inclusion, rather than exclusion. I am disappointed to see that your marketing and sales strategies have changed so dramatically."
William S. Yellowrobe, poet and playwright, also told ICTMN, "Let me get this straight? The Gap wants to sell t-shirts that read; 'Manifest Destiny'? 'The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian' was taken? 'Kill the Indian save the Man' is going to be used in their back to school designs for next year?" Yellowrobe, who acknowledges that his faux t-shirt slogans may sound harsh, says we have to remember that "this is another episode of American history where an idea, or arrogant statement," led to genocide. "Maybe a friend of mine is right. Gap should come out with a 'Final Solution' t-shirt, or a 'Got Slaves,' t-shirt," says Yellowrobe.
Aaron Paquette one of Canada's most reknowned First Nations artists created his own take on the advertisement to help people understand just how offensive the shirt is:
He wrote on his Facebook page that the phrase "'my struggle' sounds innocuous enough, right?" but translated into German it becomes "Mein Kampf". "Throw that onto a t-shirt, GAP," Paquette wrote, before adding "(I'm joking, please don't!)"
Thanks to their voices, hundreds of complaints poured into The Gap's social media channels, and a Change.org petition demands that The Gap stop selling the t-shirts. On Monday afternoon, in response to a comment about the shirts, the retailer posted on their Facebook page that "Based on customer feedback, we will no longer offer the t-shirt in our stores or online." The shirt has indeed been pulled from both The Gap and McNairy's website.
For his part, McNairy took offense to charges of racism, tweeting in all caps, "Survival of the Fittest." After significant backlash he deleted the tweet and on Monday tweeted that he was sorry for the comment but, "it hurt me deeply to be called a racist as that is not me. I reacted without thinking."
We've noted before that this is not the first time a company's created a racist ad campaign or product and then been shocked that people aren't thrilled about it. As of this writing, no formal apology has been issued from The Gap, but it'll be interesting to see if the retailer gives a response similar to McNairy's or chooses to acknowledge that the shirt is indeed racist—even if they didn't set out to be. After all, if we're going to ever truly heal from our racist past, acknowledging the problem is a good first step.