#FitchTheHomeless – On Dehumanization, Paternalism, and Charity

The internet is in agreement: Fuck Abercrombie & Fitch.

The collective outrage has produced some fantastic responses.  My favorite comes from Amy Taylor who proclaims,

“I am proud to say that I may be a not-so-cool kid and the extra pounds I carry may not be a thing of beauty, but I am nothing like you or your brand — and that, Mr. Jeffries, is a beautiful thing.”

But inevitably, as is par for the course on the interwebs, there are going to be some responses that are less than fantastic, that despite good intentions, actually end up furthering oppression rather than combating it.

Enter the #FitchTheHomeless campaign.

I’ve seen a number of people posting this on Facebook and Twitter with captions like, “Awesome!” and “Perfect.” and “Brilliant!!”

But when a friend posted it to my timeline asking for my thoughts, I immediately was left with a pretty terrible taste in my mouth.

This “campaign” is neither “Awesome!” nor “Perfect.” or “Brilliant!”  And here’s why:

While I am sure the creator had good intentions (“I can humiliate Abercrombie & Fitch while helping people in need!!!“), what it ends up doing is using people experiencing homelessness as pawns to make a political statement.

And that’s really not okay.

Setting aside the immature digs at the physical appearance of Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries, the essential premise of the video seems to be:

Abercrombie & Fitch wants only “attractive” people to wear their clothes, so let’s rebrand them by putting the ickiest people in their clothes that we possibly can, and who’s ickier than homeless people!?!?

So the White man who created the video puts on his White Savior cape, buys up a bunch of second-hand Abercrombie merch, and heads to a community this is, in every respect, not his space to invade: Skid Row.

Skid Row and Gentrification

The narrator/creator is right in asserting that Skid Row has “one of the largest concentrations of homeless people” in the U.S., a reality that is a direct result of policies by local authorities that attempted to concentrate the city’s entire homeless population into one area with few resources and services.

But what he ignores is that he’s not the only (seemingly) wealth-privileged White dude going into Skid Row.  It is the site of some pretty intense gentrification.  And while the influx of capital will indeed mean some new services for the area’s transient and homeless population, it will also undoubtedly mean that many homeless people are scattered to other parts of the city without much support.

So let’s be clear: when the narrator says, “at first, people were reluctant to accept the clothing” (before making a joke that all people who wear Abercrombie & Fitch are “narcissistic date rapists” – hilarious!), it likely has nothing to do with his little crusade.

It’s much more likely rooted in a healthy distrust of White Saviors who have long come to the neighborhood to do feel-good charity or in a resentment of the White money that is transforming Skid Row.

Charity vs Justice

And then there’s our White Savior friend’s statement of, “It was time to do some charity.”

#FitchTheHomeless

#FitchTheHomeless

An incredible friend, ally, and social justice activist named Cheryl Clark offers trainings for social service non-profits aimed at helping them understand exactly why charity is not what they should be striving for.  In short, she helps these social service agencies recognize that charity stems from a place of paternalism – “I know what you need, so I am going to give it to you whether or not you actually need it.”

As an alternative, she offers a model that she calls “neighboring,” whereby the non-profit empowers community leaders from the population being “served” to dictate the direction, scope, and nature of service while engaging non-profit staff and volunteers in building relationships and investing themselves in the community.

Her point is that charity is, despite popular “wisdom,” not in fact a good thing.  It is paternalism based in privilege, and it tends to further oppression rather than helping create justice.

So, Mr. #FitchTheHomeless, what the folks in Skid Row need is not your charity.  In fact, neither you or I could ever say what they need.  Only the folks in Skid Row can make that determination.

So PLEASE do not encourage well-meaning folks of race and class privilege to charge into homeless peoples’ spaces with their Abercrombie & Fitch gear.  If you want to donate some clothes, at least do so through accountable organizations that have done the work to build accountable relationships among people experiencing homelessness.

Dehumanization of People Experiencing Homelessness

But what really bothers me about the video, though, is not the paternalism or the blatant expressions of race and class privilege described above.

What bothers me is the way that this #FitchTheHomeless campaign contributes to dehumanization of people who are experiencing homelessness.

If you notice, nowhere in the video do we hear the stories or voices of the people the narrator claims to serve.  In fact, we see quite the opposite: quickly changing images of people who seem to fit common stereotypes of what homelessness looks like.

And aside from not really helping anyone, the creator of the #FitchTheHomeless campaign uses people experiencing homelessness as tools, pawns in his socio-political campaign against a wealthy corporation that’s run by an asshole.

And when people are reduced to tools for your campaign, there’s a word for that: dehumanization.

A few companies recently have been criticized for hiring homeless people to carry devices that emit a wireless internet signal.  In the words of this ABC news report, stated without irony, “The company turned homeless people on the streets of Austin into wireless hotspots.”

Did you catch that?  The folks who were hired were transformed from being homeless PEOPLE to being objects – devices for public consumption.

And this #FitchTheHomeless campaign is not really any different.  It communicates two things:

  1. Homeless people are tools that we can use for our funny viral campaign against a corporation AND
  2. Homeless people are the opposite of “attractive” and “cool.”  They are the, in fact, the single most dehumanized and othered population in the United States, so they are perfect for making our political point.

And this happens within the context that most people do not even cognitively recognize those who are experiencing homelessness as human beings.  That is not hyperbole.  Collaborative research from Duke and Princeton found that when presented with images of “homeless people,” the Medial Prefrontal Cortex – the section of the brain that lights up when we recognize other human beings – does not light up.

Yup – Your brain and mine are not even recognizing “homeless people” as people!!!

And this dehumanizing campaign DOES. NOT. HELP.

So, Mr. #FitchTheHomeless, Stop.  

And to the rest of my readers out there, if you’re considering participating in this little game, Don’t.

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18 thoughts on “#FitchTheHomeless – On Dehumanization, Paternalism, and Charity

  1. good on you well said and thank you

  2. Excellently said. At first I thought this was a great campaign, and then I started reading people’s reactions and criticisms and was like, “You know? They have a point.” Treating people like lepers is not “good,” Mr. #FitchtheHomeless.

  3. Whenever people start saying stuff like “It is paternalism based in privilege, and it tends to further oppression rather than helping create justice” I know they’re on some high horse business. Your attempt to fight a guy fighting a brand and homelessness is not a positive one.

    “what the folks in Skid Row need is not your charity.” = Don’t vounteer.

    That is a real bad message to make. Implying that volunteering or charity work is rooted in privilege is dumb. It also means you’d rather… what? Have homelessness just go away? Tell them to pick themselves up by their boot straps? Oh wait yes that is what you mean. “Only the folks in Skid Row can make that determination”

    Arguing that a job dehumanizes? It’s a job. It’s what people do to earn money is a society built on money. Money’s a great humanizer. Oh wait, check your privilege!!! What a great saying! I can use it whenever!

    Come on dude, the guy saying homeless isn’t cool is the CEO, who’s brand he won’t allow to be besmirched by the homeless. Are we than agreeing that the brand IS somehow cool and that homelessness isn’t? Or are we fighting the brands definition of cool by clothing the “uncool”? Sounds an awful lot like… justice… to me.

  4. […] This post was reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project, in partnership with Change From Within. […]

  5. […] This post was reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project, in partnership with Change From Within. […]

  6. […] This post was reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project, in partnership with Change From Within. […]

  7. […] This post was reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project, in partnership with Change From Within. […]

  8. […] the last week, my piece on #FitchTheHomeless has gotten a lot of attention.  It inspired the second-most single-day hits that my blog has seen, […]

  9. #Fitchthehomeless is a viral movement to spite A&F and make them the no. 1 brand of the homeless. Many believe that the whole idea is degrading because the homeless people are being used to contrast the idea of cool by positioning them as “unworthy,” or lesser human beings. And it’s not clear whether, from the homeless perspective, this stunt is actually helping anything.

    In response, P1124 has started a “Wear One, Share One” campaign to clothe the same homeless people on Skid Row. But unlike the #fitchthehomeless movement, whose goal is to shame Abercrombie without regard to the wellbeing of the homeless, P1124’s sole goal is to uplift and bless the homeless. The “Wear One, Share One” Campaign is simple; buy one shirt, get two, one to wear, one to share. Lets #uplifthehomeless, and show them that they are worthy of receiving the same new clothes that we purchase for ourselves. Make P1124 the title of no. 1 brand of the homeless.

    Watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T-6sLb8qWg

    Learn more about the movement: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/p1124-the-number-one-brand-of-the-homeless/x/3113340

    • This article is patriarching all over the place. I found this page via a feminist website discussing the new patriarchy found in modern activist movements. We are all familiar with he traditional gender roles that were perpetuated in the 50s and 60s protest movements. Many WOC will also critique 70s feminists for a white-centric approach. What this person is doing is high school obvious. Use a Marxist way of describing race and gender, adopt the voices/power, perpetuate the old hierarchy. This is clearly juvenile Marxism, simply look at the tags. The author picked something he knew would be popular, found the conflict, found the bourgeoisie and proletariat involved, and layed his condemnation. The irony being, he is condemning a white person for exploiting the poor yet he is also exploiting the situation via Marxist critique for self gain. Racial and economic hypocrisy, nice! See, the author is also a motivational speaker. Ya, he makes money on this. “So the White man who created the video puts on his White Savior cape”…. is written about, tweeted, shared by …… the white man “author” who puts on HIS savior cape all while claiming knowledge of white privilege so it is ok. And talk about NOT listening, the author goes on to dismiss all other points of view while interjecting his “1.Homeless people are tools that we can use for our funny viral campaign against a corporation AND
      2.Homeless people are the opposite of “attractive” and “cool.” They are the, in fact, the single most dehumanized” Um…..Mr. Utt, YOU said that no one else did. Why did you say it? Because it fits your Marxist ideas that you make $$ off of.
      Also, please notice that the author “white man in a savior cape” did not address the actual message in the video, which was to DONATE your clothes. Yes, at the end of the original video the message is not to go run around giving shirts to homeless people, but to -donate- them. That doesn’t work in the Marx version though because then the donation is willingly handed out to those who accept it, not forcibly thrust upon them in an act of white oppression lol. It’s ok though, I’m sure he will tell other white men that they are the source of all of my problems. That means we must be on the same team……#stopactivistpatriarchy

      • Melissa,

        I really think you are being unfair. Jamie was asked his opinion by several people who thought the campaign was wonderful and so he spoke out about it. That’s what we want in an ally isn’t it? To speak out about racist/sexist behaviour that they see?

        It’s sort of odd that you think donating clothes isn’t also white saviour behaviour. It’s like those who toss $100 to Amnesty international once a year and then go about their racist capitalist ways of being.
        As for the whole ‘homeless people are gross’ Jamie was identifying an underlying ideology which seems sound. The creator of Fitch the Homeless wanted to offend the CEOs idea of the brand being for cool people, so he picked a group that would be offensive to the aesthetics of someone with a mind set like that. Homeless people are often considered disgusting or, as Jamie points out, less than human. He’s not making that up:

        “socially distant outgroups are frequently dehumanized, and those that are seen as the most dissimilar, such as drug addicts and homeless people, are also the most likely to be dehumanized countless examples of interethnic dehumanization, from discrimination against Gypsies across Europe to
        enslavement of African Americans in early America, may stem
        in part from perceptions of the minority group as fundamentally dissimilar to the self or to one’s own group.” (http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/19/1/58)

        Instead of slaying out allies and lambasting them for daring to make a living (activists honestly have to eat too, and those who express their points well do tend to attract attention) you might to better to read more than one piece by the author.

        I think patriarchal feminism IS a seriously damaging behaviour, but it’s one I have never seen Jamie partake in. He works to subvert his privilege and life others up–he really does. He makes mistakes, he reflects on them and he tries. I have never seen him act with less than total integrity.

      • Melissa,

        Thank you so much for the criticism. You’ve given me much to reflect upon.

        As far as your accusation that I have on my own “White Savior cape,” therein lies a struggle and a tension that I reflect upon and hold quite often. In what ways AM I simply acting as a “White Savior?” Though I definitely make plenty of mistakes in my work, I try hard to build accountable relationships (something I have not always done well) in my efforts at being an ally. What I hope, then, is that my work is informed by that accountability.

        And you are right that there is an important discussion to be had about a person of privilege profiting in any way in anti-oppression work. I’ve long been wrestling with that tensions. I first wrote about it here: http://changefromwithin.org/2011/09/14/should-white-folks-profit-from-diversity-work/ I have gone back and forth on this issue, but in careful conversation with those in my community, I have come to a place where I think of it this way: I am not getting rich. I, in fact, am making considerably less than when I was a teacher, and I saw my work as very similar justice work. Should, then, we not pay teachers well for the justice work they are doing?

        Where I am in this process of reflection is that I believe that if I am doing the work as part of a community of accountability that includes many diverse identities and perspectives, something I am constantly striving to realize, then there is room for profit, even shared profit, in that work.

        As to your point about my not addressing his suggestion to donate the clothes, I am curious to know what you would say about my discussion of “charity” vs “neighboring.” I am not saying that people should simply disengage, and perhaps donating clothes is a way to “help,” but it seems to me that simply donating still runs the risk of being simply “charity,” whereby we can feel better about our contribution without doing anything to create meaningful change. This is not to say that we should not donate to homeless shelters or to organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness. This is to say that doing so it not enough.

        I blog weekly, so when I see something that sparks my interest and my desire to write, as the #FitchTheHomeless video did two weeks ago, I write about it. Most of my writing is not particularly timely, and as such, it doesn’t garner the kinds of sharing that this piece has, but I write nonetheless. It is my hope that my writing gives my readership something to reflect upon, something to think about. In this case, a number of people asked me my opinion, so I offered it.

        Please know that your comment gave me great pause. I consider your critiques to be a call to reflection about my work, and I will carry them with me as I try to walk the path of aligning my actions with my values.

  10. […] This post was reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project, in partnership with Change From Within. […]

  11. […] 4.  #FitchtheHomeless – On Dehumanization, Paternalism, and Charity […]

  12. I would not have seen a problem with the campaign if they would have simply collected all the AF clothes they could get their hands on and donated them to homeless shelters, but that wouldn’t have given the same public-stunt value. This idea in itself very much points out that it is more about AF and less about helping people.
    I totally see where the author is coming from. What bothered me most was that a lot of these people looked really uncomfortable with the situation. Where they asked permission to be filmed for example?
    One way of re-humanizing homeless people is to offer them the same curtesy (sp?) and respect as you would any other stranger, and this is not often the case. It is easy to get stuck in the “they should be grateful they get something-mentality”,
    There are other ways to make political statements, people got have gathered together and put together the worlds largest douchebad patchwork blanket or something. Perhaps made washable diapes for babies or whatever.

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