The Drama Surrounding FCKH8: Should A T-Shirt Company Be Able To Profit Off Of Racism?
I have always been on the fence about the sudden interest in social capitalism within the free market system.
On the surface it sounds great: using capitalism for the benefit of the greater community as opposed to the agenda of a single person or entity. However, when you think on it some, social capitalism is sort of an oxymoron. Seriously, using capitalism to right the wrongs, which are likely byproducts of the system of capitalism, sounds – for a lack of a better word – kind of a** backwards. Or tone deaf. Or at the very least, self-centered, because how much of this special kind of capitalism actually benefits the greater society and how much of it is about feeding the ego of someone with a savior complex?
It’s a question, which Philanthropist Kevin Starr alluded to during this PopTech talk in 2010 (seriously, take a few moments to watch it). During that talk, he “eviscerates some of the (ex?) darlings of development design like the LifeStraw and One Laptop Per Child,” this according to the website Good. For those who are unaware, LifeStraw was a portable straw-like filtration device developed for Third World countries where clean water is sparse. However, the LifeStraw failed because it inflicted added cost on poor people. And while it cleaned pathogens out of water, it did not clean out waterborne viruses, which are most prevalent in Third World Countries. Plus, there was the matter of the exorbitant cost, which in some Third World communities where the filtration device was being marketed and sold, cost more than what the average person made in a whole week – if not a month.
In particular he notes that with his company, Mulago, they only consider new ideas for products to help people when the following questions are answered:
“Is it needed? Does it work like it’s supposed to? Will it get to those needed and a lot of them? And will they use it right when they get it?”
I like to use Starr’s questions as a guide when evaluating the usefulness of a particular charity or even charitable campaign. For today’s case study, let’s consider the social value of the website FCKH8.com. According to its About Us Page:
“FCKH8.com is a for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as “mini-billboards” for change. Started in 2010 with comedic viral videos that captured millions of views on YouTube, FCKH8.com has shipped almost 200,000 equality tees, tanks and hoodies to supporters in over 100 countries. T-shirts emblazoned with bold messages like “Some Chicks Marry Chicks, Get Over It,” “Straight Against Hate,” and ”Legalize Love” have been publicly talked about by celebrities including Jane Lynch, Adam Lambert, Perez Hilton, and Zac Efron – who’s raved about his own “Some Dudes Marry Dudes, Get Over It” shirt in the press.”
FCKH8 also says that it’s a socially conscious T-shirt company that has given out more than $250,000 to various social justice campaigns. Sounds fantastic right? What could be wrong here? Well, according to ColorLines, the company’s latest campaign against racism, in particular, a viral video for its newest line of anti-racism T-shirts, has has some calling foul over concerns that the company is exploiting social causes for profits for themselves. More specifically, the website reports:
Titled, “Hey White People: A Kinda Awkward Note to America by #Ferguson Kids,” the video’s making lots of rounds on social media. Which will probably equal lots of money for the company behind it, called Synergy Media
The video features a group of unnamed black kids, purportedly from Ferguson, reciting parts of a script that’s clearly been written by adults. A script that will make you think race is solely a black and white issue, by the way. Even if the children are from Ferguson, it’s unclear if or how they’ve been compensated. Either way, the idea that these kids are from Ferguson is paraded for consumption.
Towards the end, a white adult and a black adult make nice and encourage viewers to buy a FCKH8.com T-shirt. Five dollars from each shirt will supposedly go to unidentified “charities working in communities to fight racism.” Which charities? Who knows! What communities? Can’t tell you.
You can watch the video here. Although I was initially turned off by the use of Ferguson kids in general, it’s the advertisement at the end that kind of cheapens what could have been a pretty decent bit of snark mixed in with cool messaging. But according to a note posted on the T-shirt company’s website in response to the Colorlines article, for every item sold, FCKH8 will donate $5 to either the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, the NAACP, the Michael Brown Memorial Fund and Crossroads Anti-racism Organizing & Training. FCKH8 is reporting that it has raised nearly $6000 for these four causes. Not bad considering all (well, at least some) are worthwhile organizations.
However, its anti-Racism gear ranges anywhere from $2.50 (for a bumper sticker) to $36 for a hoodie (with “Racism Isn’t Over But I’m Over Racism” written on the front). And that means a pretty sizable portion of the profits are still going back to the company. By default, it means that the company is making a pretty decent profit off of racism, which is very icky in itself. It’s almost as icky as when those Christian missionary groups use African children with swollen bellies to inspire donations for their campaigns to save the children.
It should be noted that the T-shirt company, which is definitely a for-profit and owned by entrepreneur Luke Montgomery, has drawn ire before from some in the blogosphere over claims that in spite of its anti-ism image, both the company and its founder have actively engaged in racial stereotyping and even transphobia. You can read about some of the accusations here at StopFCKH8. But in this Tumblr post entitled, “The Case Against FCKH8,” user RapACityInBlue writes:
Fckh8 speaks from a place of authority and presents themselves as a voice of tolerance. According to their mission statement, they want to educate people through their mini-billboards. But they misgender people, they trot out dehumanizing sterotypes[sic], and they scorn asexual and pansexual people. Every time they do this, they reinforce the perception that this is acceptable. They make it harder for marginalized voices to be heard.
So with that kind of polarizing image, it’s clear to see how to many people, the FCKH8 campaign does more to alienate people than it does to promote actual social justice. And when you consider Starr’s questions (Is it needed? Does it work like it’s supposed to? Will it get to those needed and a lot of them? And will they use it right when they get it?), you have to wonder if the FCKH8 campaign is really trying to help fix things or if it is just another phony feel-good venture using the theme of social responsibility to help sell T-shirts and make money? You know, like regular ol’ capitalism?