Jamie Utt explains that while the person behind dressing homeless people in Abercrombie & Fitch was probably trying to do good, using people as pawns is dehumanizing.
The internet is in agreement: Fuck Abercrombie & Fitch.
The collective outrage has produced some fantastic responses. My favorite comes from Amy Taylor who proclaims,
“I am proud to say that I may be a not-so-cool kid and the extra pounds I carry may not be a thing of beauty, but I am nothing like you or your brand — and that, Mr. Jeffries, is a beautiful thing.”
But inevitably, as is par for the course on the interwebs, there are going to be some responses that are less than fantastic, that despite good intentions, actually end up furthering oppression rather than combating it.
Enter the #FitchTheHomeless campaign.
I’ve seen a number of people posting this on Facebook and Twitter with captions like, “Awesome!” and “Perfect.” and “Brilliant!!”
But when a friend posted it to my timeline asking for my thoughts, I immediately was left with a pretty terrible taste in my mouth.
This “campaign” is neither “Awesome!” nor “Perfect.” or “Brilliant!” And here’s why:
While I am sure the creator had good intentions (“I can humiliate Abercrombie & Fitch while helping people in need!!!“), what it ends up doing is using people experiencing homelessness as pawns to make a political statement.
And that’s really not okay.
Setting aside the immature digs at the physical appearance of Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries, the essential premise of the video seems to be:
Abercrombie & Fitch wants only “attractive” people to wear their clothes, so let’s rebrand them by putting the ickiest people in their clothes that we possibly can, and who’s ickier than homeless people!?!?
So the White man who created the video puts on his White Savior cape, buys up a bunch of second-hand Abercrombie merch, and heads to a community this is, in every respect, not his space to invade: Skid Row.
Skid Row and Gentrification
The narrator/creator is right in asserting that Skid Row has “one of the largest concentrations of homeless people” in the U.S., a reality that is a direct result of policies by local authorities that attempted to concentrate the city’s entire homeless population into one area with few resources and services.
But what he ignores is that he’s not the only (seemingly) wealth-privileged White dude going into Skid Row. It is the site of some pretty intense gentrification. And while the influx of capital will indeed mean some new services for the area’s transient and homeless population, it will also undoubtedly mean that many homeless people are scattered to other parts of the city without much support.
So let’s be clear: when the narrator says, “at first, people were reluctant to accept the clothing” (before making a joke that all people who wear Abercrombie & Fitch are “narcissistic date rapists” – hilarious!), it likely has nothing to do with his little crusade.
It’s much more likely rooted in a healthy distrust of White Saviors who have long come to the neighborhood to do feel-good charity or in a resentment of the White money that is transforming Skid Row.
Charity vs Justice
And then there’s our White Savior friend’s statement of, “It was time to do some charity.”
An incredible friend, ally, and social justice activist named Cheryl Clark offers trainings for social service non-profits aimed at helping them understand exactly why charity is not what they should be striving for. In short, she helps these social service agencies recognize that charity stems from a place of paternalism – “I know what you need, so I am going to give it to you whether or not you actually need it.”
As an alternative, she offers a model that she calls “neighboring,” whereby the non-profit empowers community leaders from the population being “served” to dictate the direction, scope, and nature of service while engaging non-profit staff and volunteers in building relationships and investing themselves in the community.
Her point is that charity is, despite popular “wisdom,” not in fact a good thing. It is paternalism based in privilege, and it tends to further oppression rather than helping create justice.
So, Mr. #FitchTheHomeless, what the folks in Skid Row need is not your charity. In fact, neither you or I could ever say what they need. Only the folks in Skid Row can make that determination.
So PLEASE do not encourage well-meaning folks of race and class privilege to charge into homeless peoples’ spaces with their Abercrombie & Fitch gear. If you want to donate some clothes, at least do so through accountable organizations that have done the work to build accountable relationships among people experiencing homelessness.
Dehumanization of People Experiencing Homelessness
But what really bothers me about the video, though, is not the paternalism or the blatant expressions of race and class privilege described above.
What bothers me is the way that this #FitchTheHomeless campaign contributes to dehumanization of people who are experiencing homelessness.
If you notice, nowhere in the video do we hear the stories or voices of the people the narrator claims to serve. In fact, we see quite the opposite: quickly changing images of people who seem to fit common stereotypes of what homelessness looks like.
And aside from not really helping anyone, the creator of the #FitchTheHomeless campaign uses people experiencing homelessness as tools, pawns in his socio-political campaign against a wealthy corporation that’s run by an asshole.
And when people are reduced to tools for your campaign, there’s a word for that: dehumanization.
A few companies recently have been criticized for hiring homeless people to carry devices that emit a wireless internet signal. In the words of this ABC news report, stated without irony, “The company turned homeless people on the streets of Austin into wireless hotspots.”
Did you catch that? The folks who were hired were transformed from being homeless PEOPLE to being objects – devices for public consumption.
And this #FitchTheHomeless campaign is not really any different. It communicates two things:
- Homeless people are tools that we can use for our funny viral campaign against a corporation AND
- Homeless people are the opposite of “attractive” and “cool.” They are the, in fact, the single most dehumanized and othered population in the United States, so they are perfect for making our political point.
And this happens within the context that the most people do not even cognitively recognize people who are experiencing homelessness as human beings. And that is not hyperbole. Collaborative research from Duke and Princeton found that when presented with images of “homeless people,” the Medial Prefrontal Cortex – the section of the brain that lights up when we recognize other human beings – does not light up.
Yup – Your brain and mine are not even recognizing “homeless people” as people!!!
And this dehumanizing campaign DOES. NOT. HELP.
So, Mr. #FitchTheHomeless, Stop.
And to the rest of my readers out there, if you’re considering participating in this little game, Don’t.
Originally appeared at Change From Within