Earlier this week, I was incredibly dismayed when my Twitter timeline alerted me to a new ad campaign from GapKids that featured four girls who, together, make up Le Petit Cirque, “the only all-kid humanitarian cirque company in the world.” The message is one I can get behind — girls can do anything! The imagery, however, I cannot support.
The four girls, three white and one black, stand in a line. All three of the white girls are doing something active — lifting a leg, standing on her hands, leaning on a friend. The black child, however, is just standing there, unsmiling. And she is the “friend” that the white girl is leaning on, like an armrest. The image is chilling.
As a white mother raising a white child to be the best anti-racist ally she can be, it’s important to me to only support companies that value-positive messaging in their advertising. And while on the surface this GapKids ad seems to fit the bill, look a little closer, and it fails. Because I don’t want to support a company that only portrays positive images of white children. If there aren’t also positive portrayals of children of color, I want nothing to do with it.
I tweeted at GapKids that I would no longer be shopping at its store as a result of the ad. Yes, I even used the word “racist” to describe it. Because unintentional as it may have been, having a white child use a black child as a prop supports a long history of black bodies being used as objects by white people. The intent of the campaign does not matter if the impact is harmful. Would it be different if the races of the children were reversed? Yes, it would. Because the context and power dynamics would be switched. It wouldn’t be buying into the long history of objectification and domination of black people by white people.
I’ve been called all kinds of names by people on Twitter for my feelings about this campaign (I’ve even been told to change my name to “Britni de la Stupido”). But I stand by my reaction. For me, being a responsible parent and human in this world doesn’t just mean getting upset when something affects my own child in a negative way. That’s not how I want to be, and it’s not who I want my daughter to be.
I want to teach my daughter how to dismantle oppressions of all kinds and to use her privilege to fight for other marginalized communities. And while it may seem like outrage over something small — a clothing ad — the truth is that it’s a reflection of something so much larger. The image is a mirror of our society. The fact remains that an entire group of people (probably white people) looked at that image and didn’t see it as a problem. And that is the problem.
We know now that the two girls in the center of the photo — the black girl and the white one who leans on her — are sisters. Their mother has defended the photo, citing the fact that they are sisters as a defense of some kind. I’m sure that, because of their relationship, the pose was done with no ill will. But the fact that the girls’ (white) mother can look at that photo and not see why it might be negative imagery is troubling. It’s a testament to the way white supremacy works in our society, how it obscures the reality of what we see (or choose to see).
Do you think little black girls look at that image and internalize the message that they can do anything? And so while GapKids has issued an apology and has changed the image, for me it’s not good enough if it doesn’t come with a commitment to diversifying the people who work behind the scenes. It requires bringing people of color on board at all levels so that something like this never happens again.
My decision to not spend money at GapKids unless or until I see a commitment to change within its organization may be small, but it’s a step I can take to set an example for my daughter for the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of people we want to be. Something that doesn’t benefit everyone equally is not something we want to support. But lucky for us, we have the power to change the things we don’t like. We just have to choose to use it.
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