For Youth, Does Style Trump Exploitation?

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  • I was worried about how this would turn out.

    A designer at Adidas, one who apparently believes quirkiness ought to supersede cultural sensitivity, designed a pair of sneakers – called JS Roundhouse – that feature bright orange shackles that snap around the wearer’s ankle.

    Shackles. As in slavery. Orange shackles. As in slavery and prison.

    At first, representatives for the company defended the shoe, saying that it simply reflected the designer’s style and not slavery. But public outrage over the sneaker, which was to be released in August, forced the company to see it for the public relations nightmare that it was – so it pulled it from the market.

    That’s good. Because I worried whether the controversy might lead a lot of black youths to buy the show just to be seen – because from what I’ve been able to tell, many, though certainly not all, of our youths don’t care about subsidizing their own oppression if it means being stylish.

    If anyone needs any evidence of this, they need look no further than the ongoing battle to get young black men to stop slinging their pants so low, to mid-butt even, that you can see their underwear.

    It’s like the more people complain and the more legislators try to pass unworkable laws to force them to pull their pants up, the more defiant they become. It’s so bad that sometimes, I see brothers who struggle to walk and hold their pants up at the same time.

    It makes no sense.

    But what’s truly senseless about it is that few of them seem to care about how that trend originated – in prison. Inmates aren’t given belts because they can hang themselves with them, so they’re forced to wear their pants low. It’s also said that low-slung pants are also a sign that an inmate gives to indicate that he’s sexually available.

    You’d think that would be a trend that no man would want to popularize. But it seems many of them would rather cling to a style that glorifies their oppression rather than find one which celebrates their freedom and potential.

    Then there’s this: Each time Michael Jordan comes out with a new sneaker, thousands of youths – many of them black – damn near kill each other to buy them.

    When the newest version of Air Jordan sneakers was released last December, chaos ensued. People spent the night at malls to be the first in line to buy the shoes.

    In Austin, sales had to be canceled at three malls because of fights and craziness. In one incident an officer was pushed down, kicked and stomped. In Seattle, police used pepper spray to break up fights, and there was rioting at stores in Detroit.

    But when you look at the fact that Nikes, or Adidas, or none of these athletic shoes are made in the United States, when you look at the fact that black youths, who suffer disproportionately from high unemployment rates and who could use the sneaker-making jobs to actually be able to afford the overpriced shoes they’re fighting over, well then, they are subsidizing their own oppression – or at the very least, making it easy for these companies to see them as people to be exploited and not respected.

    So it’s not all that surprising that Adidas would try to get away with selling an orange-shackle sneaker. And, as I said, I was worried it might succeed.

    I worried that the buzz alone might be enough to want kids to buy them as collector’s items; that too many black kids would justify their purchases saying silly things like, "it’s just a style," and "slavery was in the past."

    I hate that things have come to this.

    I hate that some of us have failed so miserably in educating our children about their heritage that somehow, too many of them seem to believe their worth lies in a pair of plastic, cloth and rubber shoes.

    Perhaps that’s why that sneaker designer, if he is to be believed, thought nothing of making a shoe with an orange shackle. Perhaps Adidas viewed the low-slung pants, the prison culture and the rioting over shoes as cultural ignorance that it could capitalize on.

    So I’m glad that enough people were outraged enough to force Adidas to pull the sneaker. But our outrage should linger over the fact that somehow, a company like Adidas believes black kids are game for being sold anything.

    Even those things that symbolize a time when they could be bought and sold.

    Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her at tonyaajw@twitter.
     
     

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