Popular retailer Urban Outfitters is known for catering to the so-called ‘hipster’ culture, and it does so by incorporating influences from past decades into their vintage, bohemian, and retro clothing lines. According to the company’s website, Urban Outfitters’ “established ability to…connect with [customers] on an emotional level is the reason for [its] success.” One particular item from the spring 2012 men’s collection did a strikingly good job of evoking the past and, in doing so, indeed managed to connect with customers (and non-customers) on an emotional level — perhaps too successfully.
The item of interest in this case is the 100-dollar ‘Kellog Tee,’ manufactured by the Dutch label Wood Wood. The ‘Kellog Tee’ is a yellow men’s t-shirt, which features a six-pointed star patch sewn on the left breast pocket. Needless to say, many have taken offense to this detailing, arguing that its apparent imitation of the yellow, “Jude”-branded Star of David the Nazis forced the Jews to wear leading up to and during the Holocaust, is grossly insensitive and distasteful.
To add insult to injury, the sale of the t-shirt came on the heels of Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 18th at sundown through April 19th of this year).
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called out the retailer for selling a shirt that bears a symbol so strikingly similar to the one the Nazis used to identify, ostracize, and dehumanize the Jews in their execution of the infamous Final Solution. In an interview for FoxNews.com, Barry Morrison, the Philadelphia regional director of the ADL (Urban Outfitters, Inc. is based in Philadelphia), commented: “We are very troubled by it. The juxtaposition of the six-pointed star on a yellow shirt brings about associations with the yellow Star of David that the Jews were forced to wear. A symbol marking Jews as subhuman — setting them apart and ultimately paving the way for their annihilation.”
In a letter to the chairman of Urban Outfitters, Inc., Morrison wrote: “We find this use of symbolism to be extremely distasteful and offensive, and we are outraged that your company would make this product available to your customers.”
In the immediate aftermath of Morrison’s letter, Urban Outfitters failed to produce an apology. The ‘Social’ tab on the item’s page on UrbanOutfitters.com, however, was flooded with angry comments from Jews and non-Jews alike. Comments included: “mindblowingly [sic] offensive” and “I am never stepping foot in one of these stores again.” These comments indicate a collective conscience, that people are ready and willing to vocally protest offense, insult, or injury perpetrated against any singled-out subgroup of society.
The co-founder of the label Wood Wood, Brian SS (yes, really) Jensen issued the following statement: “…The graphic is not the Star of David, and I can assure you that this is no way a reference to judaism, nazism, or the holocaust.” It is worth pointing out that none of these terms were capitalized in Jensen’s official statement. In the same statement Jensen goes on to explain, “the graphic came from working with patchwork and geometric patterns for [Wood Wood’s] spring/summer collection ‘State of Mind.’” Moreover, he blames Urban Outfitters for advertising the ‘Kellog Tee’ using what in his mind “must [have been] a photograph of an early sample, which is of course an error.” Jensen closes his statement with an apology: “I am sorry if anyone was offended seeing the shirt, it was of course never our intention to hurt any feelings with this.”
The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, has publically lauded Wood Wood for taking corrective actions, for recognizing “early on the shirt’s potentially offensive imagery” and “chang[ing] the design so the six-pointed star-shaped logo would no longer appear.”
While Urban Outfitters’ website has been corrected to show the image of the supposed final product, Wood Wood’s website, despite Jensen’s apology, continues to boast the offensive logo as the primary image on the clothing collections page.
Some would argue that the sale of the ‘Kellog Tee’ is a non-issue and that the ADL and those in the Jewish community who are angered by it are being hypersensitive. Those who make this argument should be advised that the ‘Holocaust T-Shirt’ is not Urban Outfitters’ first offense against the Jewish community. Case in point: a few years ago, Urban Outfitters sold women’s and men’s t-shirts that featured the words “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl/Boy,” surrounded by dollar signs and Jewish stars.
Those who make accusations of ‘hypersensitivity’ should also be informed that Urban Outfitters has a long history of putting out products that are racially and culturally insensitive and defamatory to more groups than one. They have offended not only Jews, but also, as Morrison points out, “African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans and Catholics.” These groups have, too, rightfully protested.
The Native American Navajo Nation took legal action against Urban Outfitters earlier this year for their sale of Navajo underwear and flasks, which the tribe found “derogatory and scandalous.” They condemned these products for reinforcing negative stereotypes, like that of Native Americans being untamable alcoholics.
This past February, in the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, Urban Outfitters put out a t-shirt with the slogan “Irish I was Drunk.” Irish-American spokesman and president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Seamus Boyle, decried the sale of this shirt for showing “arrogance and disrespect to a whole nation.”
“They have continuously crossed the line into incivility,” Morrison states. “We [the ADL] have asked them in the past to meet with us so we can discuss these issues, but we have never received a reply. There is a way to be successful without offending or belittling people.” It is abundantly clear that the ADL invites dialogue with Urban Outfitters, but heretofore Urban Outfitters has expressed no interest in engaging in such dialogue, let alone issuing a formal apology.
Considering the number of repeated offenses, the variety of groups against whom they have been committed, and Urban Outfitters’ lack of desire to make amends, a sensitive reaction to the retail of a product like the ‘Holocaust T-Shirt’ is not only warranted, but also necessary.
The Bureau of Jewish Education’s Monise Neumann has made it her life’s work to educate students and preserve the memory of the Holocaust. Neumann remarks, “I have visited the death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majadanek, Treblinka, and Belzec countless times in my role as Director of the BJE’s March of the Living program, accompanied by hundred of teenagers and a handful of Holocaust Survivors who bear witness to the atrocities committed at these places of horror.” Neumann continues, “It is our collective responsibility to remember, to educate, and to act. Selling a t-shirt with such negative connotations goes against the lessons we must learn from this very dark period in our history and is beyond disrespectful to both victims and survivors and indeed, to all humanity. Urban Outfitters should lead by example and this is not an example to be proud of.”
As deplorable as it is, retailers sell items that are insensitive and offensive and people purchase and wear them. This is the unfortunate reality and its impact is not limited to the vendor and purchaser. What if a student shows up to class wearing a t-shirt with objectionable symbol or offensive message? What if an employee shows up to work wearing such an item?
Keith Fink is an attorney at Fink & Steinberg and a professor at UCLA, where he teaches several free speech courses through the Communication Studies department. In his classes on free speech on campus and free speech in the workplace, he poses these very questions.
If a student were to show up to class wearing the ‘Holocaust T-Shirt,’ “I would expect a sensitive teacher to instruct the student to cover up the shirt, remove the shirt, or leave class. This response is the appropriate response and the legal response,” says Fink.
The seminal case in this area, according to Fink is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District of 1969. Fink explains that the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case affirmed the students’ right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam war and that the “students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.”
Even applying Tinker, Fink believes that “it [is] beyond peradventure to state that an obvious, visible symbol expressive of such atrocities and intolerance “disrupt[s] the learning environment.” A professor would not be “violat[ing] the free speech rights public [school] students enjoy” in asking the student to change the shirt or leave class in the name of preserving a safe, non-threatening learning environment.
With respect to the analogous workplace scenario, Fink explains: “Workers for private businesses do not get to raise First Amendment challenges to employer actions. A dress policy should prohibit clothing that is offensive to customers and employees as long as it does not contravene some protected category (e.g., an employer could not ban an employee from wearing a cross simply because the workforce is Pagan). Failure to prohibit the wearing of offensive clothing [like the ‘Holocaust T-Shirt’] could lead to a hostile work environment claim.”
Fink comments, “there is nothing illegal in the United States about selling offensive, idiotic, racist, or sophomoric shirts. In fact, one of the hallmarks of our democracy is the belief that it is more valuable to allow speech that may be universally condemned as offensive than to expurgate the speech.”
The case of the ‘Holocaust T-Shirt’ will ultimately be decided in the court of public opinion. Will Urban Outfitters’ sales take a hit? Will you continue to shop at Urban Outfitters? The sale of the ‘Holocaust T-Shirt’ began on the heels of Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Whether this timing was calculated or pure coincidence, whether the t-shirt was meant to insult or not, we, as a community, should learn from this incident. We should learn to be ever-mindful and ever-vigilant in the defense of the dignity of all constituents of our community.