A new, limited-edition shoe from Adidas-Salomon AG, part of the "Yellow Series" and decorated with the face of a character who has buck teeth, a bowl haircut and slanted eyes, has provoked a heated debate about the lines dividing racism, art and commerce.
The character on the shoe is the creation of a San Francisco graffiti artist, Barry McGee, who is half Chinese. McGee, who calls the character Ray Fong after an uncle who died, said the image is based on how the artist looked as an 8-year-old.
"You have to look at it as a piece of artwork," said McGee, 40, who used Ray Fong as a graffiti tag in the late 1990s and later in art installations and catalogue covers. "The way we put it all together, it becomes a collectible as art."
The shoe was released April 1, with 1,000 pairs on sale at a dozen boutiques in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hamburg and Denmark. It retails for $250 and comes with a graffiti art fanzine.
Since then, several blogs and message boards have been consumed with fervid debate over the shoe, and Asian American organizations have said it evokes damaging and long-standing stereotypes.
"You're kidding me, right?" read an entry on the Web site Angry Asian Man. " That's racist! "
Others point out that McGee's mother is Chinese and that he often uses art to explode stereotypes of Asians. On the blog AdJab, Adam Finley wrote, "My theory . . . is that Adidas is trying to target a younger, hipper demographic that is already familiar with the underground art world and the images can seem controversial when not seen in the proper context."
The Organization of Chinese Americans, which is based in the District, has received about 40 complaints from its members, according to communication director Anh Phan. The organization has sent a formal letter of complaint to Adidas, asking for removal of the shoe from the market.
"We initially didn't think it would become that big of a deal, but our members seem to think otherwise," said Phan. "Taken in context with all the mentions of yellow, it's upsetting. We want people to be mindful of that when trying to promote their products."
Dorothy Wong, the group's executive director, said such images define Asians as foreigners. "And it fuels an anti-immigrant sentiment that has been coming to the fore lately," she said.
McGee's role as an artist and his ethnic background have confused the issue for some.
Still, said Frank H. Wu, dean of the Wayne State University Law School and author of the book "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White," the images have an effect that cannot be ignored.
‘Part of a pattern’
"The problem with this is not that it's done by bigots, because it's not," he said. "It's also not that it offends people, because in many ways, that's what art is meant to do. The problem is that these images, even though crude and cliched, are powerful, almost indelible. They write the scripts that we expect others and we ourselves to follow. You can't read all that into a shoe, but it's part of a pattern."
The controversy also addresses the issue of removing a potentially subversive image from the context of art and introducing it into the world of commerce, where there is no means to indicate that the image may be a wry commentary on stereotypes, rather than perpetuation of the stereotype itself.
"We live in such a cynical, postmodern society that if you are offended by something like this, people say, 'Lighten up, it's ironic, it's a joke.' And that's really nice if you're a student of art history," Wu said. "But how many 10-year-olds talk about irony? When you get teased, it doesn't make it any better to know that they're also calling it ironic. It sends the message that it's hip to make fun of Asians."
Called the Y1-HUF, the shoe is part of the Yellow Series of the Adicolor brand produced by the German sportswear maker and was designed by McGee with the San Francisco specialty-clothing store, HUF. The Adicolor line offers 42 shoes in seven colors, 36 of them produced with artists or designers.
Adidas said it meant no offense. "It is an unfortunate coincidence that its inclusion in the Yellow Series has been misinterpreted as offensive," the company said in a statement. "It was not the intention of Adidas, nor HUF and McGee, to offend any individual or group as we pride ourselves on being a multicultural organization."
Peter Chang, 21, of Silver Spring said it wasn't necessarily offensive because of McGee's background. "But as a shoe-head," he said, "I wouldn't consider it for a collector's item just because visually it doesn't fit into what people go for when they think of Adidas. If Adidas takes heat for it, it's their own fault. They're a multinational corporation; they have to think about the consequences."
Deborah Kong, 33, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy and a former newspaper reporter, heard about the shoe from her brother and sent an e-mail to friends and Asian American organizations to start a letter-writing campaign to Adidas.
"There has been some discussion on blogs about whether this constitutes racism, or whether it's an artist's response to racism," the e-mail states. "But we think it is, at the very least, a bad marketing decision on the part of Adidas. And, taken out of context, it represents an outdated stereotype."
In 2002, the clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch Co. drew complaints from Asian Americans because several T-shirts it produced bore characters with similar attributes and racially charged slogans.
Kong, who covered that controversy for the Associated Press, said the Adidas shoe does not bother her as much as the Abercrombie shirts but that she thought it was a good opportunity to raise debate on issues that she said Asian Americans are typically hesitant to confront.
"I would like to see an apology, however," she said.
At the Adidas store in Georgetown, which does not carry the shoe but has other Adicolor products, manager Sean O'Brien said he has not received any complaints about or requests for the Y1-HUF. However, he said he recently visited a New York store that was selling the shoe and salespeople there told him they had received numerous complaints.
McGee said he still doesn't understand the reaction.
"I mean, I had a bowl cut and I had buck teeth," he said. "People can perceive it as whatever they want. I guess that's just the power of images. The whole project was kind of a joke to me, so it's weird because I never saw this coming."