J.Crew catalogs have always been a treat to peruse, sometimes even more so than a fashion magazine. Always showcasing a life where everyone is beautiful, expertly layered and perfectly accessorized. However, this issue's perfect accessory, as Jezebel puts it, are little brown children. Titled Our Bali Adventure we are guided through an exotic holiday, showing what to wear to the beach or to 1000 year old temples, where it gets strange is the photos posed with the local children some of them appearing not to understand what is happening, though a small child anywhere, of any race would have a hard time comprehending.
Maybe it's because I spent three years taking film theory classes taught by a Jamaican-British professor, who heavily emphasized on the depiction of “otherness” in popular culture. But it's hard to miss the imperialistic undertones of the photos. Here are two affluent white vacationers who were so charming that they befriended a large group of locals enough to pose in their religious attire on the steps of a temple with them. We've seen these images before.
Whites saving Africans in danger. White school teacher saves the black kids from the ghetto, because you know black kids are always from the ghetto. White man steps onto an Indian Reservation and stumbles into a sweat lodge and discovers he's a shaman and saves the tribe. White girl exposes the horrible work conditions of nannies in the mid-century South. The list goes on, and probably you've come to the conclusion that the image of the “White Savior” this is a personal pet peeve of mine. But the point of the story is there is a classic theme of Whites being the center of the story, in the J.Crew catalog you have White tourists being the center of what appears to be a celebration or a special occasion.
If we were give the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the Balinese posing with tourists is a regular occurrence, I had never been to Bali, so running a Google search on “Bali Temples,” there were no images to be found of vacationers posing anywhere with the locals. A lot of Balinese dancers performing, but no, nothing depicting what J.Crew has in their catalog this month. Then again, none of the tourists are as stylishly dressed.
To their credit, J.Crew does have some amount diversity in their catalogs, more so than many. They show interracial couples in their bridal, and have Black, White, Asian, Latino models that regularly grace their catalogs. The photos of the models posing with the Balinese children might merely be a misstep in poor taste. It might be due to lack of insight rather than insensitivity.
None-the-less the greater question might be in the quest for diversity in an industry that's clearly out of touch: At what point does the quest for diversity become exploitation?
Images from J.Crew and MediaFilter
Jennine thank you so much for writing this post. It’s a tough line to distinguish for sure. I find this all the time, when the “locals” are people of colour, white tourists, or in this case white stylists want to have them in the pictures, it adds an “exotic” flavour to their experience. Look how liberated we are, we love little brown kids.
But the truth is, if did the catalogue in
France or Germany or in the US or Canada, and there groups of little white children around, they probably wouldn’t have posed with them in the same way.
It’s tough. The intentions are probably good, but the end result can be pretty uncomfortable.
Thanks again for posting this.
Yeah, I think that’s what’s most unsettling, the way their posed. I’ve tried to find photos around, as I’m almost certain they exist, but photos of a white school teacher surrounded by aboriginal children or and explorer posing with a tribe. It’s the image of imperialism that is exploitative and it’s unsettling that the theme still courses through popular culture.
In my opinion it all depends on how the kids and their parents feel about it. I often wear Austrian traditional dresses even when traveling so there are tons of pictures of mostly but not only American, Japanese and Chinese tourists posing with me and/or my kids in front of the main sights in various towns around the world. We love it. It give us always a fun sometimes mute interaction with other people.
I think the big issue I have is why “racism” is being thrown around? Racism implies that one race is superior over another. There would have to be discrimination. Two white people posing with local children of another nation is HARDLY racism. You could probably throw it in the category of stereotypes, if you wanted to play that card. But you brought out a key point: J.Crew regularly shows “minorities” in their catalog, making it very evident that racism does not exist within their mindset. And when that’s the case, it is irresponsible to suddenly throw in the word racism because this time the minorities are posing in their native land with white people instead of being in a studio taking photos. I can understand wanting to dissect the thought process behind this particular shoot. But the definition of racism needs to be clearly understood before someone just throws it around with the accusatory question of “could this be racist?”
There is so much more I could say on this, but I fear I would write a novel. So I will just say that racism should never even be brought up unless you can clearly define it and understand the differences between that and a stereotypes, especially when past behavior proves racism has never been an issue. I understand that the ultimate conclusion was that J.Crew was not being racist. Still, those who are unfamiliar with J.Crew could see this and immediately jump to a conclusion. If we want the company to be more thoughtful in how they approach their catalogs, then perhaps these blog posts could be more thoughtful in how they approach the analysis.
As a Native American (Squaxin Island Tribe) I define images exploiting indigenous people, particularly children as clearly racist. That’s why the term is being “thrown around”
Just because J.Crew has a history of hiring models of various races does not give them a free pass on this, sorry.
I’m Bolivian. My family came to America in the 50s. We KNOW racism, we’ve experienced it first hand. Exploitation does not equal racism. Racism is very specific in what it is. Please don’t confuse it with prejudice, stereotype, and the like. While racism includes those things, those things do not necessary include racism. Not to mention that you assume it’s exploitation. But perception is not the same as intention. And it’s unfair to jump to a conclusion without knowing the photographer’s intent. Taking film theory classes and being a member of a tribe doesn’t mean that you’ve correctly applied a term here.
Look, I’m not the biggest J.Crew fan, but I do take issue with how matters of racism are addressed. I just personally find this irresponsible, sorry.
I disagree with what you are saying. Exploitation is a form of racism, and no matter what intention, it’s perception that counts. Always.
Vogue and many magazines are also guilty of this. I think it’s more of running out of ideas…
Jennine- your concern about treating some cultures as being less “complex” than the European American culture depicted as tourists in this J Crew catalog is at the heat of the “little brown brother syndrome” you are opposing. While I do not disagree with that being a problematic mindset, it is far too oversimplified to toss this into the racism and/or diversity bucket. As an interculturalist by profession I know that this is a highly complex conversation you are blogging about and you made the mistake – easy enough to make if you haven’t really studied culture – to use the terms black, white, Asian and Latino in the same sentences as if these are parallel terms. Skin color and culture are NOT the same thing and this error shows the limit of your understanding about this whole issue. However, I do not like the J Crew images at all. A more studied response on this that doesn’t scream racism as the easy argument might be very interesting and instructive for people of all cultures.
Hey there Marcia,
You are right, I have limited understanding of racial and cultural nuances, I am a blogger who specializes in writing about fashion and social media.
I never said that race and culture are the same thing. After living in Europe for several years, I would never make that mistake. J.Crew has people of different races, and I was referring to specific models.
I do not know about the Little Brown Brother Syndrome, from a Google search, the term Little Brown Brother specifically refers to what Americans called Filipinos during colonial occupation. Perhaps you can enlighten us?
This was a great post and I’m going to feature it on my site tomorrow.
I have to say that I believe this was just a poor misstep. I seriously doubt that J.Crew would mean to suggest an imperialistic undertone in their work. I personally love the J.Crew catalogs myself and I fully agree with you about the diversity the catalogs holds. This is one of the main reasons I love J.Crew. They aren’t scared to show how the world is now, not how people like to see the world.
The posing with the locals thing is not unheard of. For example, I hosted a Japanese exchange student for six months and she told me, “You wouldn’t believe the amount of Japanese people I have taken pictures with.” I know, Germany is not a third world country, but she was a local posing with people not native to that country.
I don’t think this was intentional by J.Crew.
Maybe I’m just jealous because I lived in Germany for two years, and I never got a shot of a group of local kids posing with me!
This is nothing new for J. Crew. She the amazing bell hooks essay “Eating the Other” for her analysis of J. Crew catalogs and how they depict Africa. It’s from the early 90s, almost twenty years old but very salient.
This always reminds me of the old Banana Republic catalogs from the 80s before they completely changed their image in the 90s. They actually handled it well because it was about the clothes they found while traveling the world and not about this kind of eating the other. I’m the only one who remembers those around here, aren’t I? Wish I’d kept them.
Oh yes, I remember the old Banana Republic! Their stores were also decorated like a safari.
Thanks for recommending “Eating the Other” as well!
It just makes me so mad that after so long, fashion just doesn’t GET it. This is racist because it’s exploitative. Those children add nothing to the narrative. Are the kids even wearing J. Crew? I honestly can’t tell.
People are not accessories. Mining other cultures to highlight your privilege is NEVER in good taste. And it frustrates me that this discussion happens every time some rag does something silly, and then it happens again.
Maybe living in the US. has just made me jaded.
“Mining other cultures to highlight your privilege is NEVER in good taste.” That’s such a good point.
Sometimes a beautiful, it is that, photo … is simply a beautiful photo.
I’m so comfortable with this reality.
thanks you for being the sane one Madeleine! it is just a picture of tourists with locals, nothing more nothing less – its we who are racist if we see race in the picture!!
The fact that your so comfortable with this reality is the exact reason this article is necessary and highlights the bigger issue of how people of color are portrayed in the media.
Finally someone who’s not ultra politically correct….there are people who waste their entire lives hunting down these perceived injustices to humanity….as if by ‘exposing’ these offenders they have somehow changed the world. Sometimes a photo is just a photo. Stop looking for things that might not be there. If you really want to help, there are dozens of brazen human atrocities that go on every year…champion one of those! (ie Syria)
Just another politically correct marketing shill. Sooo fake.
Another thing; After reading all of the other posts, let’s just reverse roles and put a young minority couple with a group of white amish. A little weird and kitschy? Definitely.
Please stop victimizing ALL other races and blame every little racism action on whites! I am not a white, I am Indian and I KNOW brown people can be racist A LOT on occasions!! – As a brown skinned girl – I have had more ‘pity you are not fairer looks and comments’ from my own race than whites! In India the game of cricket is bigger than football and baseball combined here – recently they started having cheer-girls (cheerleaders) from western countries and have been SO biased for white skinned girls. It is not whites there who are dropping African models/cheerleaders from the team to get white cheer leaders – it is the good old brown skinned people who own the team – but when comes to token commenting, they are the first ones to rant against whites! Sorry for the long , may be offensive to some post – but I had to say it!
Off topic here but I am so sick of reverse racism in this country. Blacks rooting for blacks, hispanics rooting for hispanics, indians rooting for Indians are all OK, but god forbid a white person favors a white among a group of mixed raced people!
White are becoming minority anyways in US, so its time we take a breath and have a a new look on racism! Move forward not backwards.
I haven’t victimized anyone, just analyzed the image and put it into context of images in our culture we see on a regular basis and I’m questioning it.
Also, by no means have I said Whites are the ONLY perpetrators of racism, it’s just what’s apparent in this case.
I also find it odd going to a fashion week in Asia and runway shows with a majority of white models. It’s strange, but I don’t really know as much about say, Singaporean culture as I do American culture, so it’s not something I would feel comfortable addressing.
Finally, I don’t think dismissing or tolerating racism or exploiting cultures we don’t understand to sell clothes is a positive road to go down, which is why I’m addressing it here.
This was interesting to read. Seeing the JCREW picture doesn’t automatically bring those thoughts to me, although looking at it again I find the male model creepy and a little condescending in the way he’s holding this kid who just does not want to be there, but I think the way the female model is posing amongst them is fine. She just looks like she is happily admiring their culture, and thinks they’re cute. The other photo with the priests and the black kids is disturbing though…I can definitely see that.
Wow – talk about jumping to conclusions! Taking a couple photos out of context, not just out of the catalog narrative but the narrative of an entire company. And one of the conclusions jumped to also seems to be the enthusiastic willingness to just be totally offended about something.
For individuals that are offended – buy the clothes or don’t. Simple enough.
But wait – these individuals are not just offended themselves, they are offended by an entire company AND they are “concerned” about a whole race of people. Hmm…not so simple eh?
Ok, so “racism” – is it explotative to ask some local people to pose next to some not-local people for a few photos? Sure, a company is selling clothes so they have an agenda there, but that isn’t evil in of itself. The locals could say no. Hell they could call the photographers and models white devils and run off, warning the leaders of the area to shun the entire production crew fearing some corruptive influence. I don’t see that happening…in fact, some of those locals are smiling. If you look further into the catalog there’s adults and kids, some smiling very joyfully others trying to be comfortable with a not so normal situation. At worse a couple of the kids look bored…not forced…just not enthused about posing next to adults they don’t know.
Are little children (that happen to be brown colored) being used as accessories? Please…show me a new mother or grandparent that doesn’t show their child off to other people as an “accessory” to their good breeding & awesome genes or whatever, and they can cast the first stone.
So what could this really be about? Um…maybe it’s about wearing clothes…and making friends or interacting with other humans while doing it? Huh…what a concept!
If you actually look thru the catalog there’s cultural referrences made throughout it – on the people, patterns, environment, architecture, etc. etc. The kind of stuff people and countries are proud about. If one gets past the cover with the bored looking kids sitting beside experienced and polished fashion models, one might actually feel intrigued by the country they chose to photograph in.
Oh yeah – with that being said I’ve just got to point out that the “tipster” that was kind enough to jump on this um…”racial issue” wasn’t even sure what place the children were locals of “…standing amongst a group of (Burmese?) Southeast Asian children”.
Um, Burma is just over two thousand miles away from Bali. If the concerned tipster would have suspended their annoyance and actually looked in the catalog she may have discovered that story and perhaps a little about the actual Balinese culture that was being spotlighted. Nope – instead she got all upset about white folks wearing kids on ancient temples somewhere in Southeast Asia.
A real question for those that are all concerned about racist hoohah…do you really think that any customer out there is going to
be really butthurt that they don’t have a little brown kid around to make their outfit rock? Nope…chances are those kind of people
already have their ultimate live accessory in the form of a small dog. Or perhaps they are just thinking “nice pants, but I’ll need
5 new pairs of shoes to go with them.”
I’m Filipino, and grew up in the Philippines before our family migrated to Canada. When I was a little girl, I remember a German couple asking to take my picture with them in front of our school (as it’s well-known as having the oldest bamboo organ). I didn’t think anything of it, and did not think it was in any form racist (or anything) I probably looked like one of the little kids in the JCrew catalogue:P Fast forward a few decades, when I was in Paris, my sis and I took some pics with the “locals” (a waiter, a security guard) because we thought it would be add more authenticity to the experience. Perhaps, that’s what the photo above is trying to achieve. Hmmmm….
Sorry for the ramble. My point is that, I don’t think the above picture shows any kind of racism at all. But then again, I don’t know what the history is of JCrew marketing, so….shrug…I think some of those Benetton ads are more offensive:P
Anyhoo, I think this is a great topic nonetheless, which falls into that “Fearless” article you wrote about, Jennine.
Hey there Emmy,
I think your examples are different, maybe not the Germans, but the waiter example in Paris, you are documenting a regular occurrence to enrich your diary of a trip. In the picture above, the photos depict an atypical experience. My research found no images of locals posing with tourists at ancient temples. It’s not adding to the narrative of the story, it’s not documenting culture in the area, I’m not sure what it’s doing, but it makes me uncomfortable enough to want to question it.
Anyway thanks for leaving your experience in the comments! 🙂
I’m wondering why you don’t consider the photo documenting the culture of the area or adding to the narrative of the story? It seems that the photo itself brings up questions – “where is J Crew at?” “who are the children?” “what are the kids wearing and why isn’t it a J Crew outfit?”. In the caption J Crew says this about the children “They’re dressed in tradition temple clothing – called Adat dress – which is believed to focus the worshippers’ attention on a higher purpose.” (-btw THAT seems a really cool concept to me – wearing something to focus myself, woot!). In that one sentence I as a reader both get a really cool little snapshot of the culture and explains a thread in the story of who the J Crew models new “friends” are. Granted that’s text but my curiosity at the photo often compels me to seek out more explanation of it when I’m intrigued by the story.
I think maybe your research didn’t turn up with any images of tourists + locals at temples because perhaps that is something most people don’t want to try to approach out of religious/social politeness, or even shyness. If I were a pro photog I would love to get a shot with me, a priest, and a prostitute in the Vatican to give my own narrative of a country! 😀 Alas, I am just an iphone snapper with enough trouble asking my own friends to pose with me in front of the camera.
(btw I hope I don’t appear argumentative here – this is just a super fascinating article you’ve got here!) 😀
I received this issue in the mail yesterday, and thought the exact same thing when I saw the cover.
The photo is clear: there’s a strong division between the white, affluent couple and the poor, brown children. The photo emphasizes the brown childrens’ poverty and “otherness” to an American audience that will mostly associate with and understand the white couple. Given the history of imperialism in south and southeast Asian countries, the cover was backwards. The image speaks, “white couple saves/adopts poor brown children.” This was the classic justification for imperialism – that European empires had a duty to save, educate, and civilize poor, non-European savages.
I don’t think the faux vacation picture is racist, but it surely isn’t diversity. I think we use the word “racist” for anything race related far too often. Some people who aren’t as culturally sensitive do go on vacation and take pictures with the “locals”, or think the J.Crew picture is totally acceptable, but they are culturally insensitive, and possibly ignorant, but I wouldn’t broadly label them as racist.
However since J. Crew is a brand and not an individual so I expect them to “know better” and think a little harder about the images they put out, especially since they are doing a better job of diversity in other ways. As a black women I remember the times when there weren’t any black models in the catalog.
I saw the catalog AND the behind the scenes, and I personally think everything is staged the way it is and I don’t think it’s racist. Im asian, I live in Asia, and ive seen many times a white couple on honey moon taking photos of locals. Thats the target demographic and im sure if they were honyemooning in Paris they’d take photos with french kids.
That said as an Asian Male, when I shopped at various J.Crew stores in the states, I would definitely get stared at as if I didnt belong there. And THAT’s racist.
JJ I totally agree with your last sentence. I find that even with the new diversity in the pages of J.Crew that there demographic is not me. I also have gotten the strange looks or less help that the J.Crew target demographic when shopping there. That’s far more offensive than some stage picture that many people don’t find “racist” at all.
I am ethnically South Asian, and the above J.Crew photo is NOT racism. Are white people forbidden to enjoy other cultures and people forever?
I do not find anything racist about the photo. I see a couple who is vacationing and took some pictures with the local children. It is also not diverse. Diversity is including people of colors/all races in campaigns and catalogs on a regular basis.
I also think it is kind of ironic (almost comical) that a community – when you flip through post after post, page after page, picture after picture and find few people/bloggers of color is even trying to point out at how racist/diverse another company is.
Continuing to pen things as racist, only perpetuates racism. Racism is never acceptable in any form. What also is unacceptable, is calling white people racist at any opportunity you get.
I got this catalog in the mail and didn’t think it was racist, because it’s not showing hate against this race or even making fun of them.
But I definitely thought it was awkward. Did the kids get anything out of this? Did they get paid? They’re modeling, after all…
I don’t believe it is racist at all, it is a beautiful photo and J Crew always shows such diversity. It is saying nothing bad about the children at all, it is glorifying them and their beauty! The definition of racism is: “hatred or intolerance of another race” is this photo showing hatred towards the race? no. Is it showing intolerance? no. It is showing beauty, and that for sure is not racism.
I’m so tired of these kind of posts or any posts blaming fashion for eating disorders, racism and cultural stereotypes. Sometimes, when you see a beautiful photograph, you just appreciate it for what it is. In this case, a beautiful couple enjoying their trip with local children. How is that racist or imply racism? They’re not depicting these children in a degrading manner or as “accessories”. They genuinely look like they’re enjoying their time and absorbing their culture. Personally, I love pictures like this that tell me a story about other cultures while displaying beautiful clothes and local people. There’s nothing wrong with that.
To me, it’s the perfect setting to showcase clothing. Nobody (except people who make a big deal out of nothing) would cry “Look! White people using minorities for their personal gain”. This is absolutely bullshit.
I totally agree with you! Can’t we all just appreciate a beautiful photo without crazy analytic crap and insults?
Hi Jennine – I was referring to this sentence in your blog post:
“They show interracial couples in their bridal, and have Black, White, Asian, Latino models that regularly grace their catalogs…”
In other words referring to black and white (skin colors) and Asian and Latino which are cultural groups as if they are parallel terms. So in other words, African American (Somali, South African, etc. would be keeping an apples-to-apples comparison. European American instead of white.
The term little brown brother syndrome can refer to any situation where people are being ethnocentric and viewing their own culture as somehow more real and complex than others’. Common in all examples of colonialism, but also a tendency of people from more technologically “developed” countries to think of “developing” countries’ cultures in this way. Not because people are overtly racist but because it is natural to prefer your own culture and the advantages of wealthier nations like the US obviously seem preferable. I know you don’t want a long involved post here, but as always poverty is really at the core of the diffences/disparities anyhow but we don’t talk about poverty in America we talk about racism/skin color. People just need to think in broader terms and the reaction to the J Crew catalog will resonate most with people who have buy too easily the idea of white Americans being racist and ignoring diversity. The purpose of the catalogue is only to present visual images, and thus “diversity” is appropriately presented in visual ways (ie skin color, eye shape, etc). I just thought the criticism of the children image was a bit over the top. Unless the caption read, “Stylish American visitors introduce the locals to fashion” or something like that, it’s hard to see that posing with cute kids is particularly imperialistic.
Thanks for listening. Your post sparked some important conversation beyond the buttons and bows of fashion. Hurrah!
I truly appreciate the concern you have expressed – we live in a troubled world far from fair and just. It is only with awareness building and advocacy that behaviours can change – not an easy task.
But at times, I believe that we can also over-interpret situations and behaviours because we are socially conscious or because we are not necessarily culturally experienced or informed. This, from my perspective, is one such situation. Here’s why:
I have spent most of my professional life working for the UN in various countries. I was very lucky to have had a chance to work in Asia (Thailand, Viet Nam and Cambodia). I was there with my family including my then 2 year old son. Back than he had blonde curly hair ( I am also blonde). Everywhere we went we were followed and I would very, very frequently be asked if people could take pics with my son.
On one occasion, while visiting a temple in Bangkok, we encountered several classes of schoolchildren who were picking up the leaves around the temples. I must have spent at least half an hour on a bench, posing, while one after another Thai school girls took turns taking pics with us.
I was then asked by one of the teachers whether my son would join the class in taking the class picture. As a result I have this incredibly touching and beautiful pic of my little boy surrounded by Thai kids sitting on the steps of a pyramid-like temple (not unlike the one on the J Crew catalogue cover) which I wish I could share here.
All this to say, that while your Google research did not yield anything on taking pics with foreigners, in Asia this is really a common occurrence (especially if they are blind and fair skinned). It is actually seen as a good omen (only surpassed by having your picture taken with a Buddist monk).
All the very best to you.
Danina of Fashionable in Montreal
Sorry, auto correct got the better of me. The penultimate sentence should state “especially if they are blonde and fair skinned”.
When I studied abroad in Jordan, visiting various sites such as Jerash, my parents and I encountered a group of schoolgirls on a fieldtrip. They were so excited to talk with a real, live American (I speak Arabic so we could converse) and the teacher and all of them wanted pictures with my mother and I in front of the scenery. My father had to juggle almost 25 digital cameras to get everyone’s wish in, including mine to have a memory of the acquaintances I made. Does that make me racist?
I didn’t put any of these pictures online, out of respect for my own privacy and that of others. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
I totally agree with you! Can’t we all just appreciate a beautiful photo without crazy analytic angle and always pulling the racist card!This is note a college course in “what does this picture say!”
I just see local children w model. Why is there always a spin about racism? People want to embrace other cultures and this is doing just that. Why is it negative? She’s beautiful they are beautiful. It’s photography and fashion and art. It’s real folks. It’s real life. Why throw in a token white kid if they don’t fit in there just to not look racist? That card is really over played. Lets just love everyone of all colors and cultures. And if black and white should not be photographed together that is a problem . You are the one bringing racism into this. It’s tough being a white person these days . Whew! All white people (White Americans? European Americans? Etc etc) are not prejudice! Stop the insanity! I’m Italian and if someone was in Italy and took a photo with darling local Italain kids I would never jump to the conclusion it was racist!! And there are some white people who are in inner cities and other countries helping out! Damn them? They should not get credit??