The T-shirt emblazoned with the message STOP BEING RACIST! caught my eye and stirred a mix of thoughts of support and cynicism, as I power-walked by the trendy Gallery Department boutique near CBS Television City Studios in Los Angeles.
The message in blue and red lettering, inside a red bulls eye-like form imposingly scaled at almost a foot in diameter, shouted from the front of a white T-shirt on a mannequin. Many would identify its colors as those of the United States flag, which has symbolic representation of nationalism and pride, patriarchy, imperialism, and/or oppression, depending on your particular view of and place in the U.S. and global social orders.
I appreciated this T-shirt’s emphatic social justice call to action and its setting in this boutique’s window display in a neighborhood where mostly middle-class white people reside. A neighborhood where many of these folks are oblivious that racism is a problem for people of color, and ignore that the historical balance of power and access is in their favor. So many white people, whether conservatives or liberals, evade admission of, or outright total deny, racism as defense mechanisms when confronted with racial inequality and racist policies that at every period of the nation’s history have created so much harm and suffering. Even though there have been substantial accomplishments in the struggle for racial justice over the last century, in the long freedom struggle and civil rights movement there continue to be reminders of what has not changed or been accomplished.
Although I was gratified to see this anti-racism message in the boutique’s window, I had questions about its display. Were the proprietors really endeavoring to aid people with a purpose to think bigger to help improve humanity? Or were they making a serious issue a commodity solely for an immediate profit? After all, they are in the business of selling clothing, and the currency of what is fashionable and cool can be cyclical and fleeting.
A T-shirt with a socio-political statement is not new. Though lately, T-shirts and scarves have been showing up in fashion strategies to sell particular brands, sometimes attached to financially benefiting causes and other times not. Across various time periods, a few non-profit groups have even had some success selling gear and schwag to help fund their humanitarian agendas.
In a symbiotic relation with these fashion and humanitarian trends, it is not unusual for people in their daily lives to wear T-shirts with messages to protest social injustice and support change. As well at organized, mass movement assemblies of these same causes, diverse people proudly wear these T-shirts, rather than their Sunday best clothing as was done by many during organized mass civic actions of the 1950s and 1960s modern civil rights era.
After walking and driving by a few times over several weeks, I finally visited the boutique, where I had a conversation with the sales people. I learned a young black man who grew up in Los Angeles, Josué Thomas, designed the T-shirt as a conscious public message addressing unpleasant racist incidents he experienced. This creative act was his way of impacting people to change the way they think about issues of injustice in small- and large-scale ways.
Thomas and another sales person, a white young man named Jesse, told me the window display and their wearing of the T-shirt themselves in public settings outside the shop, had stimulated many comments. Most who commented during boutique visits offered supportive feedback. Some shop visitors made purchases of the T-shirt and other clothing.
Surprisingly, they informed me only a few, mostly whites, had expressed discomfort with the anti-racism display. They encouraged these visitors to contemplate the message for themselves, with the hope these individuals with discomfort would use the experience to become more self-evolved citizens in making their own lives and society better.
When the proprietors wore their T-shirt outside the shop, people offered supportive comments with questions about where the T-shirt could be purchased. Some whites offered verbal or non-verbal responses of discomfort.
My conversation clarified these proprietors, Josué Thomas (business founder and creative director), Jesse and other staff, were brave artists and social justice warriors expressing their brand, style and substance in equal measure. They join others around the country in the last few years in brave and provocative contributions of gestures, narrative writings and building of movements of resistance and calls for social justice that are making inroads towards change and greater good for all U.S. and global citizens. Thomas and other artists across the nation and the world, some very well known and others not, have contributed powerful political and social speech imagery that lives on forever in memory creation of unforgettable gestures and moments addressing the current important social justice issues to stoke conversations and change.
The boutique’s team shares public space with those who work to bring down the statues of the Confederate generals and slave owners around the U.S. They stand with professional football players Colin Kaepernick who took a knee and Malcolm Jenkins who raised a fist during the national anthem before games to protest a country that oppresses black people and to work out finding solutions to the problems they cared about. They respond to U.S. President Trump, who has empowered and emboldened white supremacists with his unchecked racist actions and denigration of black and brown people, along with poor people of any color.
The T-shirt’s message backs up the Black Lives Matter Movement, a civil rights organization, that focuses on changing institutions and attitudes that have habitually marginalized black people. It reflects the voices of scholars and observers, who in various media have called our attention to the recent national and global political climate that is frightening and dangerous as they critique those in our midst who are openly supporting racism, white supremacy, nativism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny.
Their anti-racism T-shirt is a voice of creative resistance claiming public space through art to make a wider public more aware of the social and political issues continuing to face people of color and society generally, to help empower this public in shaping broader conversations and stirring them to take steps to build a more just and equitable society. I am not trying to sell T-shirts, but it is inspiring to see this one in a boutique window display.
It is a reminder for me there are multiple voices and ways to express activism that should be heard. As a writer of history I recover stories that have been suppressed or neglected. When I share the narratives I have uncovered with audiences in public presentations and various media, I am using my own activist voice, just as the anti-racism T-shirt designer does, to help empower people, particularly those of color, with new interpretations and information from the past for use in making their lives and communities better in the present and the future.