A good friend shared with me an Instagram post/ad by Shethinx in which a white model is modeling the latest hue of their underwear: Ube. Pronounced as oo-beh, ube is a purple yam originally from the Philippines. It’s one of our quintessential desserts, often boiled, mashed, and mixed with condensed milk.
Note that the caption makes no mention of the origin of the name, or even how to pronounce it. You can imagine the thousands of people calling it “oob” because they’ve never heard of it as “oo-beh.” Yes, you can cringe now. Actually, keep cringing because it is more than cringeworthy.
In our conversation I talked about how it reminded me of the t-shirts Abercrombie & Fitch sold in the 2000s with images of slanty-eyed Asians and slogans of “Wong Brother’s Laundry Service: Two Wongs Will Make It White” written in that East Asian-looking font. You know what font I’m talking about. While I won’t go into why those t-shirts were offensive because it should be clear just by reading the description (and if it’s not clear to you, may I suggest you do some reading on Asian American history), the difference here is while one was clearly racist and offensive, the Shethinx new hue feels like an attempt to be inclusive, maybe even relevant, and also cute. Someone on staff must be or have connection to Filipino people. But being inclusive is not just about the staff, it has to be evident in every aspect of the organization/business from the products, to the marketing, to every day conversations among the staff and with consumers, to the way we think. Why was the model not Filipino? Why did the explanation about ube come after the fact? And just because one or a few Filipino people thought it was ok to name underwear after a dessert does not mean that the Diaspora will agree.
You could argue that using a word that is a color and a dessert is not new. Caramel being a good example. But you know, not the same. Because caramel is widely accepted as both; no one claims caramel as part of their cultural or ethnic origins, identity, or their current reality. Ube is. It is part of our culture, our food, and it’s not ok to use it as a color especially when the words “purple” or “aubergine” could suffice. Also, the color of that underwear is more plum than purple yam.
In my Law and the Arts graduate course, I wrote about cultural appropriation and copyright, referencing the time when VINTA Gallery, a Filipino-Canadian atelier specializing in modern Filipiniana—a broad term that encompasses traditional Filipino formalwear and design–found itself embroiled in dialogue and debate about the difference between appropriation and appreciation. In my paper I discuss how the First Amendment of the US Constitution and copyright law thrives on expression and the proliferation of ideas, but they often do not provide space for social responsibility. For example, an artist has the moral right (droit moral) to create or to refrain from creating. Other moral rights include the right of disclosure (to decide whether or not to disclose a work), the right to withdraw (not recognized in the US), name attribution, and integrity. Here’s a short excerpt from my paper:
It is the idea of refraining from creating that is a compelling one to imagine as it relates to cultural appropriation. If only we lived in a society in which creators would take a second or two to ask themselves if they can use an image or a fabric, if they are the most appropriate person to write a particular song or play or story. Believers in the absolutism of the freedom of speech and expression would probably label this as chilling speech, being asked by a community to not make that dress or write that play. But is being asked to refrain or to not be the one to create a specific thing truly chilling speech? It may chill one person’s speech for the moment, but the dress, the fabric design, the song, the play, the story can still exist in the world for the public benefit; it would just be created by a different person.
So next time Shethinx–or any retail company for that matter–wants to make a connection to specific racial/ethnic groups, take more than a few seconds to ask yourself if you should create the thing. Because not doing something can also be powerful. It seems weird to say that, but in this context, yes, it is. And if Shethinx wanted to be more relevant to Filipino Americans, why not talk about how difficult it can be sometimes for second generation Filipinas to speak to their mothers about their period, about their bodies in general? That’s relevant. That’s the kind of outreach and conversation that is worthwhile and true.