Dehumanization, Paternalism and Charity: On #FitchTheHomeless

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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.”

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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:

  1. Homeless people are tools that we can use for our funny viral campaign against a corporation AND
  2. 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

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About Jamie Utt

Jamie Utt is a diversity and inclusion consultant and sexual violence prevention educator based in Minneapolis, MN. He lives with his loving partner and his funtastic dog, Chloe. He blogs weekly at Change From Within. Learn more about his work at JamieUtt.com.

Comments

  1. Jameseq says:

    the young man was just being as overearnest as you are currently being ;-)
    while i could see how you arrive at your view – and the fact that the homeless people’s faces were NOT anonymised certainly adds to your argument

    i think he was just saying, ‘you r so wrong a&f ceo, a&f is for everyone’.
    i think the homeless faces should have been blocked though, i didnt like that that didnt happen at all

    • Jameseq says:

      im moving closer to your view jamie.
      perhaps the vidmaker got the consent of the homeless people to be filmed and uploaded to youtube first. the vid does not read that way though.
      it would also have been preferable to do a quick interview with each person, with the vidmaker explaining why he was giving them the clothing eg,’ the a&f ceo says a&f is only for a select few. i disagree, and say it is for all people. that is why im giving you this clothing’.

  2. Great article! Essentially said the same thing in fewer terms this morning when replying to a colleague who had tweeted that this was a “GREAT response.”

  3. Melenas says:

    Yeah, I had a similar reaction. It sounds like good fun, knocking an annoyingly insensitive corporation down a peg or two, but the message they are sending comes across as “so you only want cool people to wear your clothes? Well I’m going to associate them with homeless people, the most disgusting people ever!”

    Not so sure it has much to do with being white though.

  4. michelle says:

    This is assuming that your view of the homeless population is in line with the companies. Mine is not. I feel that people who are homeless represent us all. They all start in differnt places they all experienced life differntly and they all ended up in the same place. I was homeless for a period of time in my life. Most of the people I met during that time had a hard time getting everything they needed to be 100% comfortable but had ingenuise ways of getting what they needed to survive. They were the most giving support close knit group I had ever met. I believe you should do what this guy did with a few minor tweaks. Interview these people and ask if they want to make a statement against a company that would rather burn a resource then find a produtive way of using it. Let them know that one way or another what they make is going to make it everyone so they should rethink what they are doing. Give directly to peopke in need instead of turning your back on the fact that the number is growing. We as a society need to remember what it truely means to “Waste not, want not”

  5. Sorry, but I don’t agree with your interpretation of the video / the campaign. I absolutely share your condemnation of charity. I do find the American system, where you have no social net for people who experience tough times. It is dehumanizing when things beyond their control make people dependent on other people’s charity. It would be great if something could be done about that; Obama’s introduction of universal health care was definitely a step in the right direction.

    The video however, was satire aimed at turning A&E’s marketing strategy on its head. According to the CEO the clothes are only meant to be worn by an extremely limited group of people. Many who can’t understand what the fuss is all about think he just excludes overweight people. No, he wants the clothes only to be worn by ‘the cool kid in class, with lots of friends’ … That translates for me into a shallow, uneducated person, without any ethics … Basically that could be some of the people who benefit from the misfortune of the people living on Skid Row (just a thought I had now). In any case not the majority of society. By giving the clothes to the homeless, who are not supposed to wear them according the CEO, he merges them with all the other people ‘unfit’ to wear A&E clothes, which is the majority of society and thus takes them out of their isolated position and welcomes them back into the majority. In this campaign the homeless are not de-humanised but re-humanised.

    • No, he wants the clothes only to be worn by ‘the cool kid in class, with lots of friends’ … That translates for me into a shallow, uneducated person, without any ethics

      I wasn’t a cool kid, neither did I have lots of friends although I had a few, but I’m willing to bet that some of the cool kids with lots of friends aren’t shallow, uneducated people without any ethics.

  6. I totally get your point — I think this campaign to humiliate A&F is condescending to the homeless – I also have to point out that reading critiques of “charity” kind of makes me think, “ok why bother then?”. If my efforts, as an admittedly privileged white person, to do some good for the homeless just proves that I’m a terrible, privileged, clueless person, then maybe I shouldn’t try to do anything,

    • Sarah, this is precisely why I described the concept of neighboring, service that is done through accountable community building. Charity is paternalistic. Neighboring is part of the process of building true community accountability across difference.

  7. for those still engaged in this dialogue, i’m disheartened by the quick rationalizations/defenses of the #fitchthehomeless campaign. regardless of how well-intentioned the campaign may have been or how sincerely nuanced the campaign initiator may have been in his understanding of the systemic hurt and marginalization of some people groups, the way the campaign has been designed and executed is, at its very base ideology, sorely unjust in how it understands and treats a whole other systemically hurt and marginalized people group.

    to hear responses to the campaign from some of the men and women of skid row themselves, please take a moment to listen to their voices in the brief article below. regardless of how your views align or not with the author’s, she at least was willing and able to gather some honest frontline responses from residents of skid row and had the established relationship to do so in an honoring way.
    http://www.relevantmagazine.com/reject-apathy/poverty/why-fitchthehomeless-backfires.

    we can rationalize and intellectually circle-jerk about the merits and failures of this campaign all we want, as comfortably housed people, far away from skid row, with no real relationship with the men and women who’ve experienced this interaction firsthand [and likely with no real relationship with any man, woman, or child who’s experienced the reality and social stigma of living unhoused]. but for most of us in this particular forum (and most other forums), our opinions and insights, in the end, aren’t really informed by the real and personal experience of living as someone who is/has been homeless. and if they are, there are likely few (if any of us), who have actually experienced it firsthand.

    it would be wise for all of us, myself included, to take the time to listen carefully to what that experience actually is from those who’ve had to live it. and to regard those voices, insights, observations, validations, hurts, and suggestions with much more weight [and as far more informed and experienced] than our own. lest we perpetuate the same paternalism this campaign is guilty of.

  8. sonsern says:

    Hello,

    I noticed that you covered the #Fitchthehomeless, so I wanted to let you know about a relevant movement called #upliftthehomeless.

    #Fitchthehomeless is a viral movement to spite A&F and make them the no. 1 brand of the homeless. Many believe that the whole idea is degrading because the homeless people are being used to contrast the idea of cool by positioning them as “unworthy,” or lesser human beings. And it’s not clear whether, from the homeless perspective, this stunt is actually helping anything.

    In response, P1124 has started a “Wear One, Share One” campaign to clothe the same homeless people on Skid Row. But unlike the #fitchthehomeless movement, whose goal is to shame Abercrombie without regard to the wellbeing of the homeless, P1124’s sole goal is to uplift and bless the homeless. The “Wear One, Share One” Campaign is simple; buy one shirt, get two, one to wear, one to share. Lets #uplifthehomeless, and show them that they are worthy of receiving the same new clothes that we purchase for ourselves. Make P1124 the title of no. 1 brand of the homeless.

    Watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T-6sLb8qWg

    Learn more about the movement: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/p1124-the-number-one-brand-of-the-homeless/x/3113340

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