Are There Racists at Old Navy, or Do They Think That We’re Dummies?


“Images of Black women that are in fact ‘national, racial, and historical hallucinations’ have been ingrained into the collective conscience of the United states since slavery. Black women have been depicted either naked, generally in an ethnographic context, or as laborers, usually domestic, their social status playing a crucial role in the development of visual identity. With rare exceptions, representations of the Black woman in art and photography have followed these prescribed lines.”—Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), p. 182.

“I ‘members when they put me on the auction block. They pulled my dress down over my back to my waist, to show I ain’t gashed and slashed up. That’s to show you ain’t a mean nigger.”—Lu Perkins, quoted by James Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember: An Oral History (New York: Avon Books, 1988), p. 292.

In his 1985 book on the Atlanta child murders, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) spoke of the “ancestral, daily, historical truth of Black life in this country,” then paused to note that, in the context of the African-American experience, the words “ancestral and daily are synonyms.” That is, they have the same meaning.

James BaldwinWhat Baldwin, right, meant by that is what Black people state when they, speaking of the same conditions, inelegantly say, “Samo, samo.” In other words, same old thing, nothing’s different in any meaningful way. “You try and get ahead and they change the rules.” Whatever Black people do, white supremacy merely adapts. Or, as I often urge, “Why would they change what works?”

It is utterly fascinating to see how frustrating these contentions remain to many white people. Their notion of history is heroic; a series of climaxes that they, like chiseled, blood-spattered action heroes, have wrangled. (Baldwin, right, of course, knew this, and in the aforementioned quote added that “historical does not refer to that spotless mirror in which the bulk of White North Americans imagine they see their faces,” but the actual, true history that Black people have borne.)

Barack Obama is inagurated as 44th U.S. President.Of course, when it comes to action-packed heroics, nothing tops this past November’s election and inauguration, right, of the current president. It was an achievement which moved many white people to quickly declare the age of Obama “post-racial.” A greater number said, more generously, but no less absurdly, that, in the wake of seating a Black president, “America had changed forever.” Pundit after pundit, in kind, asserted America’s “maturity” with this act.

Doesn’t having white people write their own absolution preserve white supremacy as a system? All of this, to me, had the quality of, after a home invasion and robbery, agreeing to let the thief fill out one’s insurance claim and police report. At the very least, one can agree that having the people who have victimized you quantify your mistreatment invokes a sizable conflict of interest.

Though all of the above is deeply relevant, none of this was on my mind Tuesday night, when, while watching American Idol, I saw an Old Navy commercial, titled “Mid-Town Flash,” below, in which a white actor, with one brisk move, strips off a Black female mannequin’s dress, leaving the figure, above, save for modesty bars, completely naked, smiling, and being curiously observed by her fellow mannequins, or “supermodelquins,” as the group are called in the corporation’s series of ads.

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Old Navy Supermodelquins Black father and sonWhen I saw her clothes vanish, instead of thinking about Baldwin and history, at that moment, I felt as though I’d been very softly kicked in the stomach. Now, it didn’t feel like I’d been kicked really hard in the stomach. For that feeling, you have to be betrayed by a person or entity in which you actually have belief or trust. I generally don’t have any consistent expectations when it comes to interactions between white and non-white people. For the most part, what I anticipate is the familiar tackiness, that, persisting, like post-sleep mouth film, leads people to say stuff like, “We need to have an open dialogue about race in this country.”

White guy SupermodelquinBut though I don’t expect that much, I wasn’t waiting around to, figuratively, see a Black female’s clothes ripped away in front of her husband and children, above, as her mate futilely tries to rescue some of her dignity and shield her nude body from the gaze of the only white man there, right. (“Sweets!” he exclaims.)

Of course, except for the fluorescent store lights and cheap, made-in-Mexico clothing, the preceding paragraph sounds like any number of racial confrontations with white men that Black males inevitably lost. In a nation where the Black female was widely portrayed as hot, lustful, and aggressive, and her body endlessly and transgressively sexualized, the Black mannequin’s sassy, smiling retort to her own violation—”Oh, what: Like you never seen plastic before!”—affirms, symbolically, that, you know: They like it.

Many Black people will be frustrated by the responses that white people often have, both to articles like this one, and to perceptions of racism in, what to white people, are these silly, little, seemingly insignificant corners of life. (“You people see racism everywhere!”, Caucasians quickly claim.) But Black people should expect this, because without some sort of strong disruption, many white people will not see racism.


rainbow troutOne reason they won’t is that their culture is filled with it. (This is amazingly hard for many white people to see, but very distinct for huge numbers of non-white people.) Plus, as I often say, the one that comprehends the water least is the fish.

Like, take the lovely rainbow trout to the right. If you asked it if it was wet, it wouldn’t know what you were talking about. To a fish, everything in the universe is wet, which means that nothing is “wet.” (For wet to mean anything, you have to have something dry, in comparison.) So, to say wet to a fish doesn’t mean anything, and if you kept talking about what a wet world it was, and how you don’t want to read your history books because they’re always wet, or how you can’t get a job because the job market is wet, the fish would eventually tell you that you’re crazy, and maybe you’re the source of this “wetness”; i.e., the fact that you keep bringing wetness up is what’s creating it.

So, that’s one reason. The other reason many white people will not see racism is that they exude it. They’re the source of it. It’s something that they produce, that comes off of them—from their thoughts, speech, and actions—and to which other people respond. So, talking to them about it is often like asking a person who hasn’t bathed in a month if you smell, or like asking a heavily obese person if you look fat, or like asking a person, drenched in sweat, if you feel damp. Because your “signal” is so much lower than theirs, and they’re only used to theirs, they don’t see yours.

Doctor Manhattan from WatchmenImagine if you were, physically, as bright and luminous as the sun—if your skin glowed, like Doctor Manhattan, right, from Watchmen, but only much, much, much brighter. You’re at your friend’s house. They’re in another room. Suddenly, they call you to where they were. “Is it dark in here?”, they ask.

It may have been, but it isn’t any longer, because everywhere you go you completely light up the space. Plus, you’re used to that. If you’re the sun, sunlight is not bright. It’s normal.

In a way, this analogy is something like the fish one—having to do with the reality to which one is accustomed—except that fish don’t generate wetness. They merely exist in it. Meanwhile, those white people who directly or indirectly support white supremacy don’t merely exist in a racist world, but generate, and dominate all of its areas.

The Latina and Asian Old Navy SupermodelquinsI think many Black people believe that white people who practice racism will stop doing so if they get to know more Black people, learn more Black history, and have a few home-cooked meals with us. I don’t really agree, but I do believe, as a mentor whose ideas I respect has often said, “Anything people do, people can stop doing.”

That, I’d argue, is the purpose of the strong disruption I mentioned. You’ve gotta get the fish out of the water, so to speak. Otherwise, the tackiness continues, and you can expect to see more advertising—and other messages, in all areas—like Old Navy’s, forever. I’m talking about the kind that not only makes you feel stupid when consuming it, but that makes fun of you, for reasons you may not even be able to identify, but thankfully, James Baldwin, and many others, already did.



#1 Kelly on 03.19.09 at 3:32 pm

This is a good article. I’d like to add that it seems difficult for many white people to get past their defensiveness. When someone says something like you have here – “this commercial is offensive”, I hear a counter-response immediately – “you’re too PC”, “you’re reading too much into it”, “you’re being a race cop” or whatever sneering dismissal I’ve received in the past. I don’t know what dismissals you’ve received. Anyone could take this moment to say, “OK, can you tell me more” – or do the work themselves – go online for instance, where there have been many intelligent discussions of the subject. Many white people do not take that moment. I don’t want to say much more without sounding cynical.

I am very new to anti-racist literature, writers etc. I did enjoy so much Jim Crow’s Museum, and specifically the many essays on Charicatures that the founder Dr. Pilgrim wrote. I feel like these essays helped me see things I hadn’t seen before. I am still learning.

Thank you for a great article!

#2 Thermos on 03.19.09 at 11:34 pm

What I feel like your critique, and many other critiques of racism, are missing is a greater acknowledgment of how structural racism in our society underlies all the inter-social racism. Maybe we could be post-racial, and shrug off ads like the one above, if we didn’t have persistent and gross gaps in affluence, criminalization, health and education that follow clear racial lines. It’s bizarre to me that these gaps aren’t what people mean about when they talk about racism. But instead, racism always refers to behavior, access, and socialization. I’m pretty sure that the social racism exists as a result of the structural, and the former will always persist in one form or another so long as we have the latter.

#3 Varneer on 03.19.09 at 11:58 pm

Flabbergasted by the layeredness of offense with the inevitable excuse built-in… it’s just \plastic.\ Excellent work in calling this out so quickly and thoroughly.

#4 Tyrone on 03.20.09 at 10:43 am

great article. I never thought about racism like that. You hit the nail on the head with this one. Thanks for opening my eyes.

#5 Tracy on 03.20.09 at 12:33 pm

I loved your examples, especially the fish. I am thinking now how I can relate those examples to ineffective teachers who teach children.

#6 damali on 03.20.09 at 1:56 pm

i finally saw that ad. it’s freaky. in addition to everything harry points out, these two things hit me in a doubly problematic way:

1) it sets it up so the black model who loses her clothing has a husband and son- when her clothes are snatched off, the husband covers the eyes of the white male who is looking at her instead of protecting his child from his mother’s humiliation.

2) she responds “what? haven’t you ever seen plastic before” which only raises notions of breast implants, artificiality and inauthentic beauty. She also exhibits this total lack of humility with her sudden exposure, which strikes me as similar to the mythology of “they are used to being sexualized” of the venus hottentot and simultaneously over sexualized and made-mundane images of black african women that we’ve endured throughout the ages.

wow. that one is really a doozy.

#7 EmDee on 03.20.09 at 2:05 pm

Reverse the colors. If one of the white models had their clothing ripped off, and the black male made a lascivious comment, one could argue it’s racist too. Any interaction between the races can be called racist if you’re looking for racism.

#8 Leroy on 03.20.09 at 2:15 pm

I read your post this morning and later today I found this Ad from Lord & Taylor waiting for me in my inbox:

#9 QBG on 03.20.09 at 2:44 pm

Great read! I wonder aboutone of the anologies. I get the fish/water comparison but a fish needs water to live. Do white people need racism to live? Unfortunately this is not a rhetorical question so maybe it’s still a useful metaphor? Disturbing…

#10 Thulani on 03.20.09 at 5:08 pm

“Doesn’t having white people write their own absolution preserve white supremacy as a system? All of this, to me, had the quality of, after a home invasion and robbery, agreeing to let the thief fill out one’s insurance claim and police report. At the very least, one can agree that having the people who have victimized you quantify your mistreatment invokes a sizable conflict of interest.”


If a black kid had ripped the dress of a “white” mannequin, it would have read as hostile in a racial way but it would not evoke many similar images from the past– there is no tradition of exposing white women’s bodies on the slave block. The fact the black mannequin is a mother there with her child only underscores its connection to the bad old days.

If the company meant to imply that the dresses were so cute the customers were ripping them off the mannequins, having them all ripped would have made the point in a non-racialized way.

#11 4C on 03.20.09 at 5:36 pm

I recall, as a child, our family portrait in which I was positioned prominently being the eldest at 10 years old. My position in that photograph in relation to my siblings helped to validate and reinforce what I felt was my “authority” over them. Since “The Great Train Robbery” and Aunt Jamima, Hollywood and Madison Avenue have had a built-in pecking order that is rarely deviated from which serves to do the same thing for white Americans throughout the world. I would take issue with you Thermos in that “wetness” is the “structure,” and you EmDee because this commercial would never have been portrayed exactly the same with the colors of the “Supermodelquins” reversed. In the current ocean of racial striation within media, Halle Berry has been routinely ravaged by white men while Denzel Washington (or his replacement, Will Smith) could never have a white female lead as a love interest. Great job Harry!

#12 ang on 03.20.09 at 9:44 pm

It’s interesting that you saw this commercial as racist for pretty much the same reasons why I found it incredibly sexist. Of course, as a woman, I see the world through the lens of sexism (just as you see the world through the lens of racism) so this is not surprising.

#13 Liz on 03.21.09 at 4:16 pm

Thank you for your words of wisdom. I pick my bigotry and racism battles each day. This is one that needs addressing. As well as the casual way the father left his child and her mother and it was a great thing for the mother to have this child but nothing said about the child not having her Dad. Both situations sickens me. To make this treatment normal makes inhumanity normal.

#14 katedavis on 03.21.09 at 8:06 pm

The commercial is offensive partially because America has a history of using and abusing African Americans for our own benefit. This is beyond just words. This country was built by unpaid slaves and our founding fathers rested comfortably in the beds of their African slaves. These women were not even allowed to say they were “raped” because they were property. Furthermore, children, men, and women were literally evaluated in front of each other and stripped away from each other, with no control of the situation, only a white landowner/slave owner picking the ones he wanted. It hurts me to see this ad unintentionally or intentionally replicating racism.

#15 Laurie on 03.21.09 at 11:09 pm

LOVE it!! Speaking as a white person, you have nailed the head on the ‘white’ nail!
It is impossible to see the ‘air’ of racism that I live and breath, unless I intentionally emerge from the ‘white out’….
I am just within the last year becoming aware of my privilege and reading as much as I can. I wondered how the hell could I have been so blind, well I was in the white out, drowning in the white noise !
I have been learning about other cultures but I REALLY had to look at MYSELF! Thank you for this very clear metaphor. It takes that explicit of a comparison to wake us white folk up!
Will be passin this on!

#16 Kevin Josey on 03.23.09 at 2:45 pm

Thank you, my brother, for enunciating the angst I was feeling since I saw that commercial a few days ago… it occurred to me when i saw it that something was wrong with this picture where you have… even if acted out with mannequins… a black woman stripped naked before her child and her husband and her husband powerless to prevent the gaze of the caucasian onlookers… it’s a scene out of the antebellum south and the insult is only deepened by the insouciance of the onlookers.. as if this is “normal”…

#17 Ray on 03.23.09 at 3:05 pm

Following up on EmDee and ang – How would this be different if it were a (white, black, other) man who were stripped, in front of his family?
Black Man – yup; oh, so racist. Somewhat different resonances, but still with that Auction Block theme.
White Man – um, er. My brain just, um. I don’t know how I’d read that.

Of course, it wasn’t a man (and I can’t imagine it ever being a white man in any even marginally mainstream ad).

I’d like to read others’ comments on this.

#18 Melinda on 03.23.09 at 5:53 pm

Those Old Navy commercials are SEXIST! There’s one where one modelquin compliments another on her great legs and then they cut to a shot of a bin marked “Kate’s Legs” with a bunch of sexy, plastic legs sticking out of it. Brrr.

My horror at the Old Navy commercial was seriously tempered by my ire at this trailer for Miss March, a movie made by Trevor Moore and Zach Cregger from the really bad sketch comedy group Whitest Kids U Know (should be called the Most Racist, Sexist Man-Children U Know). Watch at about 1:30 into this video for how they immediately punish the sexy black woman for being a sexy black woman by throwing her out the window of a bus. When I saw that, I felt like I’d been slapped…hard.

#19 Paul on 03.27.09 at 4:05 pm

I totally agree with your article (and I’m a white man – who is gay). I hope you know we aren’t all totally ignorant – this post really moved me and I just wanted you to know that.

#20 Ella on 03.30.09 at 7:50 pm

I think that the author is racist for implying that this ad came from the white point of view, when they have absolutely no clue who came up with the idea.

#21 Richel on 03.31.09 at 5:34 pm

To Harry, thank you for articulating my thoughts exactly. I thought I was being too sensitive when I saw this ad – but with all the racial rhetoric and retorts of defensiveness from whites when we try to address such issues as these, who wouldn’t think that!? I also talk to many young black people who have started to subscribe to this “brushing off” of cultural genocide; taking on the idea that we are being too sensitive and we should just live our lives – accepting whatever wrongs, disclosed or nondisclosed, that continue and not worrying about being socially involved or even responsible for bringing about change to help preserve the lives of future black generations (and the rest of the nation as everyone would benefit). Thank you Thermos for addressing the other side of why atrocities like this still occur.

I also want to add that in a lot of black literature and commentary (anti-racist, conscious, etc.), the perspective still comes from black men, such as Harry. Wonderful, educated, aware, and strong black men to say the least, but still men. That said, I’m interested to see how you’d approach the CLEAR sexist nature of the ad. But again, when dealing with white dominant culture, even the white women are seen a property to the white men, to this day; though certainly not on the level of anything historically similar to the treatment of black women. Hence the need for mainstream feminist and women’s lib movements. The other ad that shows the disconnected body parts of other female “supermodelquins” shows how women are are often reduced to their body parts alone, stripping their voice, individuality, strength, and character with emphasis on the sexual arousal and pleasure received from them by men.

Finally, Ella, please take your blind ignorance to some other forum. The point of this article is that the commercial has racist implications because of the historical treatment and representation of African and African America women in this country, not because the writer is “assuming” anything about who made it or a “white point of view”. Even still, we can probably safely assume that the structural racism that Thermos mentions plays a part here: some white men in a board room who either have no idea or don’t care that the ad they made is grossly offensive, rather than a group of CONSCIOUS (key word: conscious) blacks creating, advising on, or structuring a more affective, non-racist ad – why, because not many blacks have those higher-level decision making positions!

In any case Ella, go read a book and get yourself together.

#22 sassinak on 07.10.09 at 4:48 pm

well, i’m white and female and those ads got me as a woman and yet i didn’t notice the racism.

i’m really glad i read this article, i tend to notice homophobia and misogyny but i thought i had better radar for racism. thanks for writing this.

that said, one of the most profound experiences of my life was the first time i was buried in a crowd of non-whites. i didn’t realise how weird it was to NOT look like everyone else in the room until it happened to me. here in canada the major cities are shifting to fewer whites than non-whites but i was from a rural area that is still mostly waspy.

i wish that in north america (well really the world) education and food were made available to all children, not just the lucky ones who are from places of privilege. until everyone has the same tools and a smaller deficit (it’s criminal how in debt people have to get for post-secondary education unless they have wealth already) when they start out.

anyway thanks, i think my eyes are a little more open now… but then i’m already the ‘overly sensitive’ one in my crowd so yeah, i hear you.

#23 @thevinylrevolt on 07.17.09 at 3:27 pm

I’m shocked that you could not mention the BLATANT sexism on all accounts. It’s offensive they ripped off any woman’s clothing to be funny, sexy, edgy whatever. Watch all the ads…all the women are sexy little idiots who heart goes to the highest bidder or the most fit male. It’s really offensive that this is the basis of their ads. Did you watch the other videos? The Hispanic model is being stereotyped as having curves, a tumultuous love life and is pictured in Miami…what is that?!

#24 alex on 07.17.09 at 7:18 pm


No… he probably didn’t notice the racism directed at the Latina figure. After all, he had no qualms associating “cheaply made” with “made in mexico.”

For some people, the only racism that matters is the racism directed at them.

#25 Max on 07.18.09 at 1:12 pm

I would NEVER have guessed that as being racist, quite frankly. I am 100% convinced that at least 60% of cases of \racism\ are ONLY in the defendant’s head. This story ISN’T racism, not at all. There’s another video where a SPanism man takes his arm off and does 1 armed push-ups, well, what the hell, this obviously means they are saying all Spaniards can take their arms off and impress all the women by doing 1 armed missing-limb push-ups. Black people are not oppressed anymore, say what you want like \I didn’t endure 300 years of slavery(no one surviving right now born in America/Europe has been a slave),\ but it doesn’t happen. I, for one, notice many advantages for black people, such as, if they TRY(many don’t) to go back to college, they get grants/loans from so many organizations/government programs. As for the prison thing, it’s because black people commit more crimes, someone has to say, so I might as well. BLACK PEOPLE COMMIT MORE CRIMES, blame what you want for this, but it doesn’t change the fact that they do. A black person born in a ghetto doesn’t have to be a criminal because he/she was raised around criminals, in the same sense, a boy raised in a mansion around his father who is a Lawyer, a mother who is a Lawyer, and butlers doesn’t HAVE to become a lawyer/butler. The whole race card really is getting old, apparently everything is about race now a days, but really, it’s not. Let people live as the deem fit, live your life as you deem fit, but complaining and making up stories because of your over-active offense-driven brain doesn’t seem right to me.

@SASSINAK – i’m really glad i read this article, i tend to notice homophobia and misogyny but i thought i had better radar for racism. thanks for writing this.
–=Wrong, women have NO radar for neither homophobia NOR misogyny, women create cases of misogyny when a man acts according to HIS free will, and not the will of feminist-based society, and as for homophobia… no one fears homos, to be frank, I don’t like them, they annoy me and I can’t stand being around them, but that doesn’t mean I fear them, I just don’t like them.

#26 Jarla on 07.20.09 at 7:28 pm

I no longer watch regular network television, so I have been thankfully spared these indignities. Thank you for the post and I will be happily sharing it with friends who don’t understand why I am so hypersensitive. I’ve never purchased Old Navy but now they’ve just put themselves in the same category as Hilfiger. When I decried Batman: Dark Knight last year for its Black American and Asian kill count I still didn’t expect to see the minstrelbots on the Transformers sequel this year. I cringe in horror that the Latina figure suffered similar objectification.
No dear folks, Post-Obama, we ain’t out of the sexist, racist, and homophobic woods yet.

#27 Lulu on 10.10.11 at 9:03 pm

I’ve just stumbled on your blog and read quite a few posts, and I appreciate and agree with many of the concerns you raise. However, I do think that part of your terminology is divisive and potentially harmful for those who wish to read your blog and become more open-minded or informed, and that is assuming that no white people notice or are bothered by rascism. I, as a white woman, see and cringe at racism every day – either through media, interpersonal relationships, the racial makeup of my school, or any number of gross disparities I may encounter. I resent those white people who step up to the mic and announce insecurely to the world that they “aren’t racist,” and I am not trying to do that. But I do think that in order to achieve any kind of racial progress in our society, it must not be assumed that anyone who isn’t black is blind to the injustice that others suffer – and let us not discard the fact that non-black people may have experienced some variation of bigotry themselves (non-black women, lgbtq, or religious/ethnic groups, for example). If we cease to cling to the specifics of what type of bigotry we have suffered, and we ally ourselves with others who may have overlapping goals, more justice can be done for all types of oppressed people. You’re kicking yourself in the foot if you decide that anyone who may support you, but isn’t oppressed enough to fit in with your community, can’t be of any use.

#28 John on 04.11.12 at 9:32 pm

How in the world was that spot at all racist? A dress was taken, and the mannequin was naked. Isn’t the idea of post “racial” means that the same comedy would apply if it happened to a white or asian model. If we see every gesture as racist, than it shows that we still see ourselves as different. I thought the commercial was cute-sy. Besides, the idea of “racist” and “racism” is a throwback to when white thought we were a different breed of human, and to use those words credence to those ignorant people.

#29 Rz on 02.21.14 at 7:51 pm

@alex Thank you for pointing that out! I really agree with the article on a whole, but my brain completely skipped over the made in Mexico assiciation. For that, I am sorry.

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