This is not our shirt:
I guess I’m supposed to comment on the matter, because I’m being asked my opinion of it. Because I’m Asian-American, and because I guess what I do runs somewhat parallel to the skateboarding/apparel industry. And because I have a blog where I talk about current affairs and digress about stuff. To be honest, I didn’t even know about this shirt or hear about it until friends and industry mates started texting it to me. I’m sure you weren’t aware of it either until I brought it to your attention (which I guess fulfills somewhat of a unique marketing strategy for Baker Skateboards).
Two Asian-American skateboarders (Don Nguyen and Daniel Shimizu) cartoonized in a rice-rocketed “General Li,” an orientalized rip on the “Dukes of Hazzard”: “The GOOKS of HAZZARD.” According to TMZ (YES. TMZ.), Nuge thumbs-upped the graphic. Is it offensive? Yes. To many Asians and Asian-Americans, it’s downright painful and inflammatory.
But is Baker offensive? Always. Is Skateboarding offensive? It should be!
Exactly a decade ago, Abercrombie and Fitch made this series of t-shirts, and they really pissed me off at the time. One of the tees’ graphics read “Two Wongs Can Make a White” with caricatured Chinese launderers. Well, two whites can make a wrong, and Abercrombie and Fitch endured a hailstorm of negative media attention for having poor taste in frat-boy fashion. The shirts were pulled.
But I believe there’s a difference between what Baker did and what Abercrombie did, and it comes down to context.
A large problem with living in the age of sarcasm and irony is that our collective sense of humor is contingent upon the situation. Whereas a joke can be funny and appropriate between friends at a bar, if published out-of-context in a corporate log, it can seem insensitive and ignorant. Abercrombie’s t-shirts were a callous mistake because of the company’s nature – it’s value estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s image that of corporate, mall-streamed, New England, WASP-y jocks palling around at keggers and campfires. There’s nothing organic or cheeky about Abercrombie’s identity, so their “jokes” seemed aggressive and dumb. Like an old Caucasian businessman telling racist jokes to a conference room of suits.
Baker Skateboards has a history of being dangerous, in their identity and branding, in the message and image they convey to a counter-cultured audience. They aren’t Mountain Dew or ESPN-appropriate, they never have been. Baker has always targeted race with their riders’ team boards and advertisements. And so have the best parts of Skateboarding. If you think this is bad, Google what Rocco was pulling off in the World Industries days. Big Brother Magazine in the ’90s. Etc.
Is the t-shirt offensive? Yes. Did it offend me? Yes! It did. I don’t believe it’s right, mainly because political correctness holds a double standard with Asian epithets. Simply put, Baker wouldn’t print the same t-shirt with a couple of black dudes and N-bombs blasted across the front.
But this is Baker. This is Skateboarding. And Skateboarding isn’t a corporate office of businessmen. It’s a buncha friends sitting around at a bar, being as loud and obnoxious and offensive as they can be. And in that context, in a small community where everyone knows each other, amongst brethren and peers, these kinds of jokes are conceivable.
As much as I dislike the idea of the shirt (the art is actually very good), I hate censorship and regulation even more. Skateboarding, in particular, is no place for that. If you don’t like something, then just don’t buy it or support it or laugh at it or re-blog it. But keep your hands off of Skateboarding, so that it can be forever insensitive, brutally offensive, and wrong. Keep Skateboarding dangerous.