What Went Down?
Here is the thing, I am not even that Jewish. In my home growing up, religion was eating latkes during Hanukah. I know zero Hebrew prayers, I have been in a temple fewer times than fingers on one hand, and that was mostly for bar/bat mitzvahs. And, if I am going to get real, I don’t believe in any sort of organized worship. Groups, or conforming, have never really been my thing.
But, while I don’t really think about my “Jewess-ness” (Broad City reference)– the world does. And, I have been discriminated against because of it.
When I see influencers that make it their business to cause internet scenes at even the slightest inclination of appropriation or injustice, yet stay silent on topics like this one. I raise an eyebrow. Why don’t you want to have our back too?
Sorry, but I’m not sorry, I find it just a touch hypocritical that these women of the internet will go on campaigns to have companies that use the word kimono put out of business because it is “violent” (which, by the way, to date, calling a garment a kimono has never lead to any sort of bloodshed), yet don’t say a goddam word when swastikas (which actively represent millions of deaths – 11 million to be exact) are being not only sold but actively advertised on Jewish peoples feeds.
What Do You Mean The Swastika Isn’t Offensive?
At my first grown-up, big person job, I worked at a sourcing agency and represented mills from all over the world, helping them to sell their fabrics to US-based clients (mostly in NYC and LA). One day, I was sitting with the mill rep from India at a trade show and noticed some doodles on their order forms. They had drawn swastikas everywhere! Needless to say, I lost my shit thinking I was working with Nazi supporters. Like, really lost it.
I went to my boss and basically demanded that we stop working with this mill. How could they be so brazen as to draw anti-semitic imagery in public, especially in an industry that employs so many Jewish people?
Quick sidebar - If you didn’t know, the NYC fashion scene has a long history with Jewish immigrants. More info on that here.
That day at the tradeshow is when I learned that swastikas were not exclusive to the Nazi party and that they had many other meanings. And, it was the beginning of my global education. It was the day a became a little less of a Karen, and a little more open-minded.
Let’s not get angry about SHEIN, they are not the disease but, a symptom of it. The disease is silence.
Influencers and the internet think the cure to social injustices are witch hunts, but, it seems, only when the hunt benefits them and their agenda (read fame). The real antidote to racism, anti-Semitism, or any kind really, are respectful discussions and learning. Pretending it didn’t happen, is the equivalent of not going to the doctor, everything just gets worse.
So, let’s get educated.
Where Do Swastikas Come From?
To Hindu’s (a religion over 4,000 years old), the meaning of the swastika is dependent on the direction it is facing. The right facing symbol, a true swastika (most closely resembling the Nazi version) is representative of the sun and a symbol for good luck. The left-facing symbol, which today is more commonly drawn, called sauvastika, symbolizes night or tantric aspects of Kali.
Many more “woke” Indians use the sauvastika, instead of the swastika. Some Indian’s have even taken to calling the symbol a swasti as to create even more separation from the negative connotations of the word swastika. The swasti is said to be derived from the Sanskrit root, swasti, which is composed of su, meaning ‘good’ or ‘well’, and asti, meaning ‘it is’. It generally translates to ‘it is good.’
Swastikas Were Trendy Before Hitler
While it is more or less agreed that India was the first to use the swastika, it has been used in many other cultures throughout history, way before the Nazis stole it. It was even on Coca-Cola bottles, pre-Hitler. If you are interested in learning about the ways swastikas were originally hijacked by western cultures as a symbol of good luck and good fortune, check out this site.
So, was SHEIN Wrong? Yes.
Here is the thing. The SHEIN pendants were not being sold in India or Asia, where the image still has positive symbolism. They were being sold in the USA, where swastikas, to date, are used by groups like skinheads, the KKK, and other racist groups as an indicator that they believe not only is whiteness superior, but everyone else should be killed off.
And, this is where the problem lies. There isn’t a huge market in the US for swastis, but there is a growing market, thanks to Trumps America, for swastikas. Context is key here.
At this point, I spend ½ my life in India, I am comfortable seeing swastikas that once caused me to panic, and now that I am reflecting on my growth, I can say, I don’t find them triggering. I have even grown to like them, especially when combined with other mandala-esq art. That being said, I still have the sense never to purchase one to wear around my neck in the states.
Anyone that is woke enough to know the history of the swastika and their good luck meaning, should also be woke enough to know not to go there as it can be triggering to others.
This product was clearly for racists.
In fast fashion, it doesn’t matter from who or where the money is coming from, it just matters that its coming. Because, racist money has no less value at the bank.
Fast Fashion Ethical Chameleons
If you are paying attention you will notice a trend in fast fashion to play both sides. It started with H&M’s Conscious Collection fashion line that was created to stop the growing pressure from activists. Instead of using polyester, they paid a few cents more to use viscose. They were able to claim sustainability, while still not losing their core customers – deal seekers. At the end of the day the campaign was really just a bunch of BS.
The use of the swastika if the perfect case study for fast fashions’ chameleon-like ability to always be on the right side. With them there is no right or wrong, there is only the ability to see dollar signs.
Let’s break down what is happening with SHEIN now.
Woke? International? Spiritual? Traveling Nomad, Citizen of the World? It’s a swasti.
Neo-nazi? This necklace is for you too.
At the end of the day though they are both in poor taste.
SHEIN, a Chinese company is either stealing Hindu culture, or even worse promoting Nazi culture all to make a buck.
Lost in Translation
But, it is important to remember that there are times when there are misunderstandings. Not every public miss-step needs to turn into a witch-hunt or result in someone getting cancelled. Sometimes people do make mistakes.
So, now that I have you all riled up about how a Chinese company is either stealing, appropriating, and profiting off of religions, or is actively promoting racism – I want you to listen to this next story about my time in China spent explaining “what Jewish is”.
A few years ago, when I was still working in fast fashion I was vetting a new trim supplier. I needed patches to sew onto kids' jackets. I told them to send me a few pieces of what they were currently running so I could get an idea of quality. This is what they sent me. Heart. Peace sign. Rainbow. Star of David's with the lettering JUDE (like the kind that marked Jews). Umm, what? Nazi swastika (same as found on uniforms). Is this a joke?
My boss, at the time, was an extremely religious orthodox Jew and he had a meltdown. This supplier had a really good reputation for being on time and delivering a good quality product, and honestly, after working 20 hours day, the last thing I wanted to do was create more work for myself with a less reliable supply chain partner. I wanted to try and make this partnership work, for my own selfish, and sleep-deprived reasons. So, I tried to explain to them why this was wrong, what the holocaust was, and why they should not have shown this to us, especially if they wanted our business.
A quick apology would have been enough for me.
And, they just didn’t get it. Facepalm emoji.
I was floored. Like, what’s not to get?
Fast forward a few days later, literally on that same trip. I was at a spa with a factory rep (spending so much time alone overseas away from my friends and family, I became quite friendly with a few reps and would hang out with them outside of work) I was explaining to them why I was not allowed to work on certain days because of the upcoming Jewish holidays. I was there around the time of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. And, the factory rep could not seem to grasp why I couldn’t work on those days.
So, me, being the token Jew for most of my life, I started my spiel explaining what the holidays were.
And, again the factory just couldn’t get it. They were so confused about why I needed time off. But, this time I didn’t give up. I kept trying to explain. Finally, after hours, we realized that the English to Chinese translation for Rosh Hashanah or maybe it was Yom Kippur, I forget which one, literally translated to a shaving razor.
The whole time we were talking, they thought I needed to take days off of work to basically shave my legs. Of course, they were confused and didn’t get it. I must have sounded nuts to them.
Our communication was totally, literally, lost in translation. I could now see why the other factory didn’t get it either. There literally weren’t words to describe the religious holiday.
My point is. Between cultural barriers, google translates not being perfect, and the fact, we only know what we have been exposed to (there aren’t that many Jews in China, but more on that later), there was a lot of confusion and misinformation. And, it was just never a priority for them to educate themselves on the religion up until then. Because at the end of the day it didn’t really affect them.
Once we got past “the holiday for shaving” it opened the flood gates for a million questions that they had always wanted to know about the Jewish religion but were too shy to ask. They told me that they never asked before because they were worried that asking these questions would somehow offend my boss, and cause them to lose our business, but felt comfortable asking me.
I’ve fielded the same questions tons of times, even here, in the United States, by people who speak English. And, should really know better because, umm Google, the kind without a firewall – Questions like, why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas?
So, when we talk about what went down with SHEIN, as angry as it may make us, or I guess some of us, we also need to remember sometimes the intention may not have been as evil as we may have believed.
Interesting fact, for a country with so many people unaware of Jewish people and what they are, did you know that China actually provided a safe haven for Jews during the holocaust? They were one of the only countries that did. Shanghai has one of the most famous settlements for Jewish people in China. It is even said that some Chinese officials in Qingdao, specifically, went as far as to help forge documents to help get Jews out of Germany and to safety.
SHEIN Is A Symbolic Moment For Jews
For me, this swastika scandal is symbolic of a much larger trend happening in fashion, and the world in general. It feels almost like my own personal introduction to finally speak about things that often felt too taboo to mention. For all the times I was told to sit down, and “pass the mic” because Jews are not a minority and could not possibly relate to racism.
I was chatting with this sustainable fashion “influencer” if you could call them that. And, they repetitively kept calling me white privileged. Let me preface this by saying, I am not denying my white skin or my privilege, but before you come down attacking someone, at least know their roots.
Quick lesson: If someone tells you they have experienced racism, come at them with empathy. Not blind rage, because of the opinion that your oppression was worse than theirs. Let’s get one thing straight, all oppression is bad. Being marginalized is not a competition.
So anyway, I let it go on for a while. And one day I finally said, you know, you might not realize this with your assumptions about my life, but I have been on the receiving end of racism, and I can relate to you, we aren’t that different. I explained that I was Jewish, and about anti-Semitism, I had personally experienced.
The influencer ended up blocking me.
Wait what? I thought we were on the same team here? That is, only after I got a few screen grabs from their feed of them yelling at other Jewish people for mentioning anti-semitism on their wall. This influencer could not grasp that just because they personally did not experience anti-Semitism, that did not mean it didn’t exist.
Unfortunately, this type of denial of anti-Semitism is normal. This is because, to many other minorities Jews are not a minority. We are considered white passing, and other minorities consider us untouched by the bigots of the world. To this I can’t roll my eyes big enough, because it is so far from true.
Did you know that the majority of hate crimes committed in the United States are against Jewish people? In the first three months of 2020 here is what the break down of NYPD hate crimes looked like.
- Anti Asian – 11
- Anti Black – 12
- Anti Homosexual – 6
- Anti Transgender - 2
- Anti Muslim – 1
- Anti Jewish – 45
- Anti – Other – 3
That means out of 80 hate crimes, over 50% of them were committed against Jewish people (who make up only 13% of the NYC population).
That is an alarming statistic. And, one that no one ever talks about.
So Why Is SHEIN Such A Big Deal?
At the start of this opinion piece, I really wanted to explain the history of the swastika and how it can be used in a way that no one should really ever take offense to. A swastika can, and many times is a symbol of luck and good fortune. And, I never want to be the person that would advocate taking that away from someone else’s culture.
What Hitler did to the Hindu religions swastika, is like the ultimate example of appropriation in the worst way possible.
But, in the context of the United States, a place where hatred is disproportionality thrown at Jews more than any other minority, and to top it off they are not even considered a minority by the other minority groups they should be allying with, what went down with SHEIN is symbolically a slap in the face.
If you take anything away from my words, let it be this. I am not calling for a ban of the swastika, I am calling for people to openly speak about what it means. Because as I said earlier, silence around these topics is the biggest danger.
The world isn’t black and white. Something can be both good and bad, depending on who is looking at it, or the context it is in. The important thing is that we talk about it, and not stay silent.