Is this Gap advert racist?

An advert showing a white girl resting her arm on a black girl's head Image copyright Gap Kids

What do you see in this picture?

Four young friends posing playfully for the camera? Another forgettable marketing campaign? Or a glaring example of a type of passive racism that persists across corporate America?

That's the debate that's been playing out online in response to an advert for a new clothing line - a collaboration between Gap and Ellen DeGeneres. The advert has provoked such stinging criticism that the company has now apologised and said it will pull the image from its campaign.

It's the tall white girl resting her arm on the head of the shorter black girl that has triggered the controversy. For some it's insulting and, if not intentionally racist, at least reflective of a lack of thought on Gap's part (hence the term "passive" racism). For others, the image is harmless, and the backlash against it ridiculous.

The initial anger appeared on Twitter.

Image copyright @VeganWhileBlack / Twitter
Image copyright @jmo120 / Twitter
Image copyright @slb79 / Twitter

The counter argument was just as vociferous.

Image copyright @jzak6488 / Twitter
Image copyright @1967butterful / Twitter
Image copyright @PCsickened / Twitter

The argument soon spilled over into opinion pieces, too.

Writing in The Root, a black culture magazine, Kirsten West Savali argues that the advert compounds "the feeling that our black bodies are undervalued and positioned to serve as props upon which white bodies can be better appreciated and admired." For her the critical reaction on social media was most definitely "valid".

A black film director added a new twist to the story. Matthew A. Cherry tweeted a picture from an old Gap ad campaign that showed a tall black girl resting her arm on the head of a shorter white girl, side by side with the new image. "Does the pic on the left make the pic on the right OK?" he asked.

Image copyright Gap via @MatthewACherry on Twitter

But the emergence of the older photo didn't stem the tide of anger. For a number of users it was the expression of the black girl in the new photo that made the difference. "No... that lil white girl [in the old photo] looks fierce. The beautiful black girl [in the new photo] looks pissed," wrote one.


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Zeba Blay, writing in the Huffington Post, argued that the issue was complicated, and warranted further consideration. "My initial reaction was not 'this is racist!' " she wrote, but added that it was unfair to say those who took issue were overreacting. "It's not the pose itself that is the problem, but the context in which it is delivered." The intense reaction the advert provoked in so many people was a result of a media landscape where there are "so few powerful representations of black women and especially black girls," and so in that context it's no wonder that so many people found it offensive, Blay wrote.

As a result of the negative publicity Gap has acted. In a statement issued on Monday the company said: "As a brand with a proud 46-year history of championing diversity and inclusivity, we appreciate the conversation that has taken place and are sorry to anyone we've offended. This GapKids campaign highlights true stories of talented girls who are celebrating creative self-expression and sharing their messages of empowerment. We are replacing the image with a different shot from the campaign, which encourages girls (and boys) everywhere to be themselves and feel pride in what makes them unique."

Even that move couldn't help offending others:

Image copyright Twitter/@WillHayes559

However, as this article was being published the image was still on the Gap Kids Twitter feed.

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