Big Thief's racist shirt isn't racist. Art should be provocative.

Nor is it a 'symptom of being conditioned in a culture of normalized white supremacy.'

The above picture is of a shirt that is no longer for sale from indie hipster folk band Big Thief. This is due to “racist imagery” on one of its sleeves. Look closely and you’ll see a pair of purple hands clutching the yellow bars of a yellow cage.

The shirt—part of a larger repertoire of Big Thief merch—has been pulled from storefronts. It will no longer be sold and the band has described it as “reckless and offensive” in a very, very long apology posted to Instagram.

Quoth the band:

The jail cell was meant to be a metaphor symbolizing imprisonment of the mind and spirit because of constructs, etc… The arms were intended to be purple so as to avoid realism and race all together but we feel that that thinking was misdirected. We believe that something as pervasive, horrific and insidious as incarceration can not lightly be approached and most especially in avoidance of the issue of race, as the entire incarceration system is fueled by racism. The lack of attention we paid to this symbolism is, to us, is a reason to bring it up. Letting this image get printed on a shirt is just another example of a symptom of being conditioned in a culture of normalized white supremacy and we apologize to anyone who may have felt hurt or uncomfortable with this image.

I’m not sure if there was some backlash online or offline about this shirt, but I find this entire act of self-policing rather backward. The apology is overwrought. If anyone was actually offended by purple cartoon hands clutching bars, perhaps those people should not be taken seriously. If this is merely Big Thief getting out ahead of a potential controversy, that’s almost worse.

Also, “Letting this image get printed on a shirt is just another example of a symptom of being conditioned in a culture of normalized white supremacy” is a great example of the kind of buzzword-spouting nonsense that’s passing as critical thought these days. It’s basically saying that art must only exist within a very specific political framework and anything that even nudges the ever-shifting boundaries of that framework is problematic.

“Our band t-shirt isn’t the main point here,” the statement continues. “Rather it is a piece of a much larger, much more important conversation which we have been having that considers all of the ways in which we have been steeped in and benefiting from a patriarchal white supremacist capitalist culture . . .”

I mean, okay. Their hearts are in the right place but come on.

Suggesting that a pair of purple hands on some cell bars printed on a band shirt is a “symptom” of “normalized white supremacy” is the height of silliness. Even if our culture was as racist and white supremacist as some people seem to think it is, this would still be far-fetched and self-important and I’m just having a hard time understanding how a white hipster band making a big fuss about this is really going to help black people, brown people, prison inmates of whatever color. Don’t preach to the choir, make some music.

It seems to me that we’ve lost sight of the difference between provocative and offensive. We’ve forgotten that sometimes even offensive artwork can help us think more deeply about the world.

If the entire point of this image was to symbolize “imprisonment of the mind” then what’s the problem? Images of imprisonment, metaphors about imprisonment, these do not equal endorsements of an unjust prison system. If anything, the image might call attention to the horrors of our ridiculously high incarceration rate. Issues like the War on Drugs, three-strikes laws and the many other ways we fill our prisons (and private prisons) to the brim are all critically important and worthy of debate and discussion. If you care about social justice, you care about these issues and want to see meaningful change. This shirt is so inconsequential in that larger discussion it’s not even funny.

Art should challenge us at times. A curious symbol on a shirt filled with curious symbols won’t offend most people. Most people might not pay it much attention. Those looking for deeper meaning might find something there. Those looking to be outraged will be outraged no matter what. Catering to the outrage crowd only means the gradual decline of everything that makes art worthwhile to begin with. You’re not going to tear down the patriarchy and all those terrible homophobic white supremacists out there by making safe, boring artwork or strident, silly instagram posts.

I enjoy Big Thief’s music. I really do. I think “Not” is a terrific song. So is “Masterpiece.” But I’m disappointed to see this kind of “apology” issued over something that is, in any sane world, not even the least bit controversial. Give me Father John Misty “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” any day of the week over this milquetoast, wishy-washy rubbish.

At least he’s making a statement and at least he doesn’t flinch.


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