Editor’s note: This article contains social media posts that some may find offensive.
But it was the scene in its entirety that, perhaps, troubled me the most. The degrading pain being inflicted upon the young black woman while everyone looked on, unwilling to interfere, serves as a prescient illustration of how black women and girls in a white supremacist society continue to be both invisibilized, endangered and exploited for the benefit of white women and capitalism, more specifically King Cotton.
It was heart-wrenching to watch for several reasons, the obvious one being the horrifying visual of the young black woman’s skin breaking and bleeding with each lash.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I saw the Ellen DeGeneres-fronted GapKids x ED ad featuring Ava, 8; Lucy, 8; Fanny, 12; and Angelina, 12, known collectively as Le Petit Cirque, “the only all-kid humanitarian cirque company in the world.” The image of these girls, three white and one black, was socialized with the tweet “Meet the kids who are proving that girls can do anything”—preferably in Gap cotton.
While all of the girls are adorable, and indeed, all of them should grow up to be and do anything, it becomes problematic when the black child is positioned to be a white child’s prop. And this isn’t the first time a similarly dehumanizing editorial choice was made. In 2014, online magazine Buro 247 published a story about Dasha Zhukova, the editor-in-chief of Garage magazine. Its feature image was of Zhukova sitting regally in a mannequin chair in the form of a half-naked black woman.
Of course, it could be argued that these images are vastly different, but the intense feelings they both evoke are not—the feeling that our black bodies are undervalued and positioned to serve as props upon which white bodies can be better appreciated and admired. If anything, the Gap ad shows how early that positioning begins.
@GapKids who thought it was okay to present the ONE black girl as static / armrest FIRE THEM
— tesseract (@A10110110) April 2, 2016
These reactions are valid and come from a deep place of understanding that this “passive racism” masquerading as cosmetic diversity is often used as a tactic to manipulate black women and girls into silence despite the oppressive conditions that we still face.
We are also living in a time when pop artists from Taylor Swift to Miley Cyrus to Katy Perry are using black women and girls to serve as props, their perceived lesser humanity used to distract from the mediocre white women seeking validation from the very black communities that birthed them.
And while we are fighting against these things, we are also fighting for our lives, addressing how black girls are criminalized and pushed out of schools, overpoliced on the streets, and underprotected in their homes and communities.
So, yes, seeing a black girl child irresponsibly used as a prop in an ad claiming that girls “can do anything” matters. It’s not about seeking validation from the white gaze or ignoring the critical need for us to buy black. It matters that black women and girls are still being subjected to the lashes of microaggressions and, at times, outright violence in the service of capitalism.
It matters that this kind of obliviousness to historical context and intergenerational trauma is being etched onto the bodies of black children, who will become black adults forced to navigate a society that willfully confuses cultural visibility with institutional and systemic equity. And still we are told, as that beautiful brown girl’s shirt says, to “love” through it all.
Contrary to popular opinion, popular culture and politics, black women and girls are neither armrests, backdrops nor firewalls, despite white supremacy literally placing its burdensome weight on our heads.
This child deserved so much better, so do better, Gap—or not. It’s your business to lose.