Bigotry, hatred big moneymakers

by Kevyn Jacobs
March 1996

You know, I have an appreciation for lewdness, bad taste, boundary-pushing and bawdiness. I can appreciate an off-color joke that pokes fun at the status quo, brings the pompous down to size, and exposes those nasty nasties that we "aren't supposed to talk about." (Sex! Masturbation! Farting!) When it's all in good fun, I'm all for it.

But I have to wonder about a line that has been crossed when bad taste becomes downright offensive -- when it encourages hate and divisiveness among peoples, and especially if it is done in the name of profit.

I received some e-mail last week from a reader informing me of some t-shirts that crossed that line, which were being sold at Manhattan Town Center. So I went to investigate.

Hot Line Gifts in the mall seems to be a decent enough store -- its focus is on T-shirts, novelty gifts and bawdy greeting cards. But two of the T-shirts on the wall made me squirm. One showed a parody of the Trix cereal rabbit and reads, "Silly Faggot, Dix are for Chix," and the other featured a Confederate Stars & Bars, which said, "It's a White Thing -- You Wouldn't Understand."

"It's one of our best sellers," said Deborah Burtnett, manager of Hot Line Gifts (of the "silly faggot" shirts). "We sell a lot to K-State fraternity-types."

The "white-thing" shirts are a big seller, too, Burtnett said.

"They sell mainly to military types and high-school students," she said.

When I asked Burtnett what she thought about these shirts, she told me she was "offended by them, too."

"Everybody who works here hates them," Burtnett said. "But they sell, and as long as people keep buying them, the owners insist that we keep them in stock."

Burtnett surprised me when she told me that she had complained to the store's owner, who lives in Kansas City, about the shirts. But apparently money is the bottom line, and so the shirts go on being sold, despite complaints.

"I'll sell one to you, but I think you're a bigot for buying it," she said.

Burtnett showed me the box the "white-thing" shirt decals are shipped to her store in. On the outside of the box, it says "racist shirts."

I have to admit a level of sympathy for the manager of the store. It's not as if she had done nothing -- she has complained to her employer about the merchandise she is being asked to sell. I don't envy her position, either, being caught between beliefs and money. I wonder how many of us, including myself, would give in to the realities of paying the rent and buying food over idealism.

Hot Line Gifts does, of course, have every right to sell the shirts. I know that they are selling because there is a market for them, and trying to ban them certainly wouldn't work -- the sentiments behind the shirts are still there. It is the sentiments that kill, not the shirts.

The sentiments behind the "Silly Faggots, Dix are for Chix" shirt are plainly heterosexist, reducing people like myself to second-class citizenship. The shirt insists that there is only ONE acceptable role for interaction between men and women, and as long as men like me refuse to play those roles, and don't adhere to what are considered "proper" roles for men, we lose credibility and become laughingstocks. I am the butt of derisive humor because of whom I love.

The sentiments behind the "Its A White Thing -- You Wouldn't Understand" shirts seem even more insidious because of the Confederate flag -- a flag which for many citizens of this country means slavery, loss of freedom, Jim Crow and inferiority under the law. This shirt doesn't mean "White Pride," as some would have you believe. It means white superiority, invoking an age when your status as a human being could be based on the color of your skin.

I'm white, I DO understand, and I am disgusted.

What makes these shirts so offensive isn't their humor -- and yes, I do see the humor in them. But they use that humor as a weapon to divide. The wearers of these shirts are saying, "Look! I'm heterosexual, and I'm better than you, you lowly faggot," or "Look! I'm white, and that makes me superior to you former slaves."

I know I will probably be accused of making more sales for these shirts by writing about them here. I know darn well that controversy sells. But I also believe in talking openly and honestly about difficult subjects, and only through exposing pain can we heal it.

I'm not calling for a boycott, nor am I demanding that Hot Line take off its shelves items it has every right to sell. I doubt that it would work anyway, or do any good in the long run. But I do hope that if you see someone wearing one of these shirts, you will pull them aside and explain why that shirt bothers you.

In an age of increasing incivility, it makes me sad to see entrepreneurs going out of their way to make a fast buck off of tensions between groups. But such is the nature of entrepreneurship, I suppose -- supply and demand.

It makes me even sadder that there IS a demand, to see how far we haven't come. As long as there are still those who aspire to divisiveness, intolerance and hate, there will always be those who will be willing to profit from that hate, making a buck off of the pain of those who suffer.

And so the hate shirts continue to sell.

Kevyn Jacobs is a sophomore in art at Kansas State University. From January to December 1995, Jacobs wrote a queer-themed column in the Kansas State Collegian. The columns are being reprinted in Oasis in chronological order with permission of the author.
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