‘White is the new black’ trips over culture, context

A “White is the new Black” T-shirt is being denounced in the United States as racist. The objections come during violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager. The shirt was made by Zara, a Spanish clothing retailer.

Missing from the debate is that this expression has been used before, including with a drawing of actress Betty White. Zara has been silent about the backlash, but people speculate it is a play on “Orange is the New Black” that just doesn’t play well in the United States and especially not with racial tensions in Ferguson as a backdrop. There is no doubt the shirt was created before the Aug. 9 Ferguson killing, but people are saying that the shirt reflects a racist mindset.

The expression is not new. Previous uses, including on T-shirts, did not produce the same reaction.

Until Zara fills in some blanks, we won’t know what the thinking was or when the shirt came out. But we already have at least two lessons:
* Phrases, gestures and other signs mean different things in different cultures
* People will interpret them not just through their culture, but through their personal lenses.
Both can change the meanings.

About Joe Grimm

Joe Grimm has been visiting editor in residence in the Michigan State University School of Journalism since 2008. He teaches courses in reporting, editing, career branding and is editor of a series of books called Bias Busters.
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