Commentary: We need to talk about those Breonna Taylor T-shirts
Watching tennis champion Naomi Osaka’s seven-part masktivism campaign during the U.S. Open, as she amplified the names of Black victims of violence at every step on her march to the championship, I was inspired. I wanted to be bold and continue in that spirit of activism by buying a Breonna Taylor mask from Amazon to wear in public. I imagine many others were recently inspired to do the same after a Kentucky grand jury brought no charges against Louisville police over her death.
But as I searched for the right mask to purchase to make my own statement, I quickly made a realization: I had no idea where the money would be going.
I tried to find out who the seller was behind one particular mask, but it turns out they can make themselves pretty anonymous. When I clicked on the Amazon seller profile, there was a list of other similar items and not a lot of additional information. There was no way to know if the profits from this purchase would be used to fund an organization dedicated to helping Black people — which is the kind of purchase I wanted to make — or just to make someone a few dollars richer. This led me to wonder how big the economy around these items has become.
Indeed, there is a whole e-commerce ecosystem that is monetizing the deaths of Black people that have gripped the nation. On sites like Amazon, Etsy and Redbubble, you can find wristbands, shoes, stickers, posters, iPhone cases and more bearing the names or likenesses of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. I found two different designs of a shirt that reads “(WAP) What About Prosecuting the Cops That Killed Breonna Taylor.”
And it’s not all apparel — there are puzzles, candles, pillows and mugs. Many listings contain clumsy text that sounds like it was written by a robot trying to use as many internet-search-friendly terms as possible. It all seems focused on making sales, not making a difference. Tellingly, the reviews of the product rarely highlight the importance of the statement being made; they focus instead on fit and durability.
I understand that people want to protest the killings of Black people in America by showing their names and faces on items of clothing. I personally can relate to the feeling of helplessness as graphic videos are shared on social media, a feeling compounded by the lack of accountability for perpetrators. But the paucity of listings mentioning proceeds going to charity leads me to believe that people are being tricked into supporting the emptiest form of capitalism.
Many Black residents of Louisville, Ky., are sadly familiar with marginalization and otherness, and have watched a system that vows to uphold justice fall short of its promise.
Yes, there are some vendors who appear to be using the money from this merchandise to do good. Jessica Alba, Regina King, Olivia Wilde, Amy Schumer and others have been seen wearing the same Breonna Taylor shirt from Phenomenal Woman, a campaign that donates proceeds to social justice groups. Still, this effort potentially helps legitimize an ecosystem that overall seems to be exploiting these tragedies for profit (I even found knockoffs of this same shirt being sold by vendors with no charitable giving attached).
There’s evidence that I’m not alone in my outrage. Recently, a Charleston, S.C.-area couple came under fire for a jewelry line that featured shards of glass from store windows broken during May 30 riots in the city. The line, called “Wear Their Names,” included pieces such as the Trayvon (Martin), $45, the Breonna (Taylor), $240, and the Elijah (McClain), $480. Last month, “BreonnaCon” was held in Louisville to commemorate the death of the 26-year-old emergency room technician. The event, which included a “Bre-B-Q,” also drew criticism, with the Louisville chapter of Black Lives Matter tweeting at the time that “commodifying her entire being as a ‘con’ is completely disrespectful.”
And it is that commodification that I find particularly offensive, even as I briefly fell under its spell. I remember looking at different Taylor masks and trying to find one showing the right angle of her face when I thought, “What the hell am I doing? This was a real person who suffered a brutal death. Why am I thinking about fashion?”
That my motivation to honor her was so easily co-opted by consumerism left me horrified. All the more so as the realization dawned that the platform where I was planning to make my purchase — Amazon — owns supermarket Whole Foods, which is being sued by workers who claim they were discriminated against when the company barred them from wearing Black Lives Matter masks.
I’m disturbed by the foundational idea of turning someone’s life into merchandise — which includes many at-home products that won’t be seen widely by others (so much for raising awareness). And even if you purchase from an outlet that is making donations to Black causes, you’re still shopping Black death, still participating in the monetization of Black bodies.
One potential workaround is to make your own T-shirt or mask, but even without money changing hands, is turning someone’s death into a clothing trend the best way to honor them? Yes, it amplifies their loss — but also reduces it to a simplistic message that can’t possibly convey the violence and horror that person suffered: George Floyd was asphyxiated to death for his alleged attempt to use a counterfeit $20 bill. Breonna Taylor was shot while sleeping in her home.
After Breonna Taylor and now Amy Coney Barrett, this week was a harbinger of the chaos to come if Americans stop believing in our system of government.
The harsh reality is that all the shirts, signs, masks and magazine covers didn’t add up to more justice for Breonna, at least not in the form of Wednesday’s indictment, which did not attach any criminal action to her death. Merchandise is a placebo; it’s a way to make us feel better and think we’re doing something, but even if it does raise someone’s awareness, it cannot substantially contribute to actual change. George Floyd’s 8-minute, 46-second asphalt asphyxiation was bad enough. We don’t need to turn around and make his face into a coaster meant to collect condensation from a cocktail.
For me, the fight for justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others will happen in other ways. I can bring attention to racial injustice through my work as a journalist. I can exercise my influence with my friends and family and, of course, through my vote. I’m not going to participate in a culture that monetizes death — and before you wear Breonna Taylor’s face on your chest, ask yourself if this is the best way to make a difference.
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