Australia for the Australians"
(badge, circa 1906)
Jeanswest, a clothing outlet in Australia, is currently offering jeans made of "Japanese denim." Here's part of their ad campaign.
As Gwen notes at Sociological Images, the white people here "are foregrounded and depicted as specific, individual human beings."
On the other hand, the apparently Japanese people are used as mere props -- an undifferentiated group told to look away from the camera and at the ground, as if in submission to the white wearers of "Japanese denim."
What we see here is an extreme example of a tendency in Western culture that appeals to and reflects a demographic white majority. Another Australian, Ross Chambers, explained this tendency over ten years ago, in his essay "The Unexamined":
In contrast to minorities, whose identity is defined by their classificatory status as members of a given group, whites are perceived as individual historical agents whose unclassifiable difference from one another is their most prominent trait. Whiteness itself is thus atomized into invisibility through the individualization of white subjects.
Whereas nonwhites are perceived first and foremost as a function of their group belongingness, that is, as black or Latino or Asian (and then as individuals), whites are perceived first as individual people (and only secondarily, if at all, as whites). Their essential identity is thus their individual identity, to which whiteness as such is a secondary, and so a negligible factor.
This form of Western culture -- centered, white individuals contrasted with undifferentiated, typecast minorities -- is pervasive. This recent Palm Pre ad is another example, as are cinematic and literary "magical negroes." Older instances include racial and ethnic sidekicks, such as Jack Benny's Rochester and the Lone Ranger's Tonto. I think the common white use of non-white backup singers often serves this purpose, as did Gwen Stefani's "Harajuku Girls."
It seems to me that in most cases, when stereotypical minorities appear alongside white characters, their primary purpose is to define and individualize the white characters. And yet, it's a paradoxical dynamic, because while white people are depicted at the center of such stagings, they're usually not depicted as white. Rather, as in the ads above, the non-whiteness of the homogenized others helps to emphasize their individuality. At least for white producers and consumers -- I don't imagine their whiteness is as secondary, negligible, and invisible to non-white viewers as it is to them.
Aside from how such usages of nonwhites de-individualize and dehumanize them, another problem here is another paradox -- privileged white people who, instead of recognizing their privileged state in relation to nonwhite people, feel instead that those people have something that they themselves lack. Something specifically "cultural."
The Jeanswest ad campaign appeals to this white sense of lack by describing these jeans as "a little bit exotic." It also explains that their material, Japanese denim, "is made by the top denim mill in Japan that has been manufacturing denim for over 110 years." In an odd twist, this very Western item of clothing -- jeans -- is being sold as authentically Japanese. And "you," the targeted non-Japanese/white consumer, can become "a little bit exotic" by purchasing and wearing them.
The exotic quality of these jeans is further enhanced in other ways:
* Each style has been finished with unique trims echoing the Japanese origins, including the red button at the button fly, hand painted buttons and Japanese printed pocket bags.
* The rivets have been engraved with the Japanese characters that mean 'Genuine and Authentic', ensuring even the smallest of details has our Japanese denim hallmark.
So here we have an Asianized product aimed at white people in a white majority country, a country that, like the U.S., used to have exclusionary immigration laws that explicitly targeted Asians. One such law in the U.S. was the Chinese Exclusion Act. Australia's parallel was the White Australia Policy.
According to Wikipedia,
The White Australia policy comprises various historical policies that intentionally restricted non-white immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973.
The chief architect of the policy, Michael Pilcher, believed that the Japanese and Chinese (Asians) might be a threat to the newly formed federation and it was this belief that led to legislation to ensure they would be kept out:
"It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors."
Nowadays, of course, Australia has eased racial restrictions on immigration, and its government officially forbids discrimination on the basis of race for any official purposes.
And if these "Japanese denim" jeans are a further indication, it seems that white Australians have gone from rejecting Asians to embracing them.
But then, have they? Really?