With each white word stacked boldly on top of one another in a pyramid thrown against signature Badger Red, this message is powerful, evoking, shocking – it’s angering.
When I posted the recent Badger Herald piece on Eneale Pickett, the creator of these hoodies and a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on Facebook, a friend of mine from high school messaged me not five minutes after clicking “share.” He thought the sweatshirt’s message was flawed and incited a negative generalization of an entire race of people.
Just like complimenting someone’s shoes or jacket, Pickett’s main goal behind his clothing line is to spark conversation. And he did just that. This clothing line has received significant media coverage by NBC15, the Washington Times, BET, and the Daily Caller, especially after death threats were made against Pickett. However, there hasn’t been much coverage of his message.
Bold statements like these cannot be ignored. Pickett wants to dive into discussions about inequalities in intersectionalities of race, gender and religion through in-your-face statements on hoodies. He explains that, “Fashion is very vital to movements. Hence why the Black Panthers, they wore all black, afro, beret, like they were legit. Then you have the Civil Rights movement, you had respectable, you had suits, you had dresses, you had all of that. Fashion is very intentional, especially when it comes to movements.”
Pickett’s wording for this movement is very intentional. Controversy arises though with confusion surrounding the terms “racism” and “prejudice”. In fact, equating prejudice with racism was a common misunderstanding among upset commenters on social media and newspaper outlets. Blacks, Whites, Asians and Hispanics alike can hold prejudice: a thought or judgement backed up by one’s opinion directed at white people or people of color. Racism on the other hand is “prejudice plus power,” as Pickett put it, not a “personality trait.” Declaring that all white people are racist isn’t directing insults at white individuals, rather it is pointing to a larger societal issue – racism works to benefit whiteness. Racism is a system that inherently disadvantages certain groups in institutions such as education, employment, law enforcement, housing and the criminal justice system. Unlike prejudice, which is supported only by one’s personal conviction and opinion, racism is backed by a history of legalized discrimination against black and brown bodies. For example, slavery, laws that barred African Americans from learning to read or write during Reconstruction, redlining and the War on Drugs still affect black Americans today. Although white people may not be actively prejudiced, systemic racism continues to benefit caucasians.
A confusion between racism and prejudice may be what elicits accusations that Pickett is being racist by making statements against whites; however, reverse racism does not exist. It cannot exist. Prejudice and hatred can, and do, exist. But there has never been a time where people of color have had the power to make laws that systematically oppress whites. Pickett is simply calling attention to the issue of systemic racism; he is not labeling all whites as hateful, but rather as beneficiaries of an institutionalized system.
Several critics think he should articulate his message in a different way. One commenter suggested, “All White People Benefit from Racism” would be a better way of phrasing this statement. When I asked Pickett how altering language of the sweaters would alter the conversation, he asserted, “If I soften it, then it’s not really a conversation. We center the conversation around whiteness. You’re privileged from systematic racism which makes you racist. So uhm, a lot of people think that being called racist is a racial slur and it’s not. I don’t know who told them that; I don’t know where they got that implication from, but it’s a lie. If you look up the term, it’s actually not a racial slur for white people.”
Despite negative push-back on his clothing line, Pickett has had a lot of positive feedback overall. UW-Madison professors have held lessons on his message of systematic inequality, he’s received praise on social media and affirmations of solidarity from former teachers, friends and strangers alike. Succeeding in his goal of sparking conversation, Pickett has held beneficial discussions about white privilege and the social construction of race with both white and nonwhite students who have come up to him on the street and initiated a conversation.
Pickett recounts speaking with a few white students who told him, “‘Thank you, because I wanted to say it, but I wasn’t brave enough to say it or to facilitate those conversations by myself. But now that your sweater is there, you can’t ignore it.’ And it’s the method behind my madness because it’s like, it’s like the bold statements you can’t, you can’t, you gotta look at the bold statement.”
These sweatshirts should make you squirm in your chair. They should make you want to scream in protest, “But I’m not racist! My family is not racist! Neither are my friends!” They are supposed to make you uncomfortable. This uneasiness is meant to be beneficial. It should motivate white people to break down this unequal system and be allies to not only this important cause, but to all those who suffer under the weight of oppression.
Pickett explains, “When you’re having critical conversations, you shouldn’t be comfortable. That’s the only thing I’m gonna leave you with. That we have an actual critical conversation to deepen or to grow your analysis, you need to be uncomfortable. ‘Cuz if you’re not giving pushback, no pushback is on you, like internally, then where you gonna be going? It’s just like when you workout, you feel pain but that pain is… your muscles are breaking, so what you’re doing, like mentally, you’re breaking what you’ve been taught as a child. You’re breaking all the prejudice that you have learned over years. You’re breaking all of that. And it hurts.”
Eneale Pickett is a First Wave Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Chicago West Side native has been an activist since he was young and intends on teaching in Chicago Public Schools, where he can directly impact the futures of youth in his home community. He recently released a mixtape discussing inequalities in education called L.I.F.E. (Living In a Ferocious Environment) Listen to it here: https://soundcloud.com/enealepickett/sets/life
Though the website is now under construction, you can find Pickett’s clothing line, which features apparel tackling issues of race, gender and class, among many others, at Insert Apparel.
Photo courtesy of Eneale Pickett.