The recent Ambercrombie and Fitch dust-up has brought up some common issues faced by activists. The minute we point out corporate behavior that is discriminatory, someone pipes up that corporations have a right to discriminate. Of course, that is not the point.
When someone engages in activism against discriminatory practices we’re rarely arguing whether or not someone has the legal right to do the thing (though it’s very often a legitimate question and this type of activism is valuable), we’re typically questioning whether it’s ok with us that they are doing it and, if not, what we want to do about it.
Whenever an activist says “This corporation’s practices are discriminatory and that’s wrong,” someone always feels like the definitive and final answer to the concern is to say “It’s legal for them to discriminate in that way .” To which I would like to say “Dude, thanks for pointing that out, because I forgot to eat my bowl of No Shit Sherlock Flakes this morning.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where the fact that bigotry against a group is legal constitutes a good enough reason to let it go on unchallenged.
Yes, I know it’s not illegal for a clothing store to delight in their refusal to make plus size clothes (though if a businesses’ expression of their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is to take pride in discriminating against a group of people for how they look, I think they might want to rethink their use of precious freedoms.) Regardless, I have the right to discuss that businesses choices, take action against them, and try to incite others to take action as well. The fact that someone, somewhere can justify the behavior is not a reason for me to stop taking action against it. If discrimination is happening, it’s highly likely that there is already a justification for it, but that doesn’t make it right or indicate that nobody should try to change it.
Clothing businesses are allowed to choose a target market and are not obligated to make clothes for everyone, but when a business’s goal is to make their brand a status symbol, then their choice to systematically exclude all people who look a certain way becomes more than a simple business decision, it becomes a purposeful creation of a second class who can’t access the “status” they provide. It becomes especially problematic when almost every business that exists in a niche makes the same “business decision.” When a “business decision” purposefully excludes a group of people in a way that adds to the stigma already heaped upon that group of people because of how they look, then that decision deserves examination and critique.
As a fat dancer, and now training for a marathon, I find myself constantly frustrated by an industry that tells people that exercise is good for us, but seems to want fat people to do it in togas that we make out of bedsheets because god forbid a fatty be seen working out in their clothes. So they justify it by calling it a “business decision” – let’s remember that plenty of horrible wrong things had similar justifications – the existence of a justification does not indicate an absence of issues, or a lack of impetus for complaint. Pointing out the systematic exclusion of a group, and the ways in which that increases stigma on that group is not entitlement, it’s classic civil rights action.
One thing I’ve learned about activism is that when you decide to do something, there will always be someone who insists that there is a reason why you shouldn’t do it. In my experience, anything worth doing is worth doing despite the critics.
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