American clothing line Gap issued an apology for its latest advertisement on Tuesday after social media users and critics condemned it as racially insensitive.
Gap found itself at the center of controversy after releasing an ad featuring four young girls from Le Petit Cirque, an all-kid humanitarian circus. The ad shows two white girls holding acrobatic poses and another taller white girl resting her arm on the black girl’s head. It was captioned, “Meet the kids who are proving that girls can do anything.”
Gap tweeted the ad on April 2 with the goal of empowering young girls, but it immediately ignited discussion about whether it was racially insensitive. It received criticism from social media users shortly after it was posted. People were quick to notice how they used the young black girl as a prop while the rest posed for the camera. Some called it “passive racism.”
— National Review (@NRO) April 6, 2016
The company replaced the controversial photo with another image of the four young girls and apologized for everyone they have offended.
“As a brand with a proud 46-year history of championing diversity and inclusivity, we appreciate the conversation that has taken place and are sorry to anyone we’ve offended,” Debbie Felix, spokeswoman for the brand, said in a statement to Fortune.
While there were people who seemed to be offended by the ad, there were also some who wondered whether people are just overreacting.
Filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry argued that The Gap had published an ad in 2015 where its young models seemed to have used the same pose, but with a taller black girl resting her arm on a younger white girl’s head.
— adland ® (@adland) April 7, 2016
“Does the @GapKids pic on the left make the pic on the right okay? Let’s debate,” Cherry tweeted.
Another Twitter user said there were other photos of the group showing the young black girl smiling and having fun, while an actress said the two girls are sisters in real life, and the black girl was too shy to talk in the video.
However, the issue was not about the photo itself, but critics argued that it seemed to suggest “passive racism” as experts compared the girls’ pose to a pre-Civil War America in which African-American kids were used as arm stools and footstools.
“These reactions are valid and come from a deep place of understanding that this ‘passive racism’ masquerading as cosmetic diversity is often used as a tactic to manipulate black women and girls into silence despite the oppressive conditions that we still face,” Kirsten West Savali, senior writer for the Root wrote.
Zeba Blay, Huffington Post culture writer, called the Gap ad “tone deaf.”
This is not the first time an ad roused conversation about how black women and young girls are portrayed by the media. In 2014, Garage magazine was criticized after releasing a controversial ad featuring Russian socialite and Garage editor, Dasha Zhukova, posing on a chair fashioned out of a naked black female mannequin.
— The Fashion Informer (@FashionInformer) January 21, 2014
Blay said a white girl leaning her arm on her sister’s head may be “pretty harmless,” but she added, “And yet, it’s unfair to say that the people who do take issue with the photo are simply overreacting.”
She explained the problem was not the picture itself but the message it conveys, “Because it’s not the pose itself that is the problem, but the context in which it is delivered. The context being: an advertisement, with all the conscious or unconscious messaging that images used to sell an idea tend to entail. In this case, that messaging is construed by many as a black girl being inferior to her white counterparts.”
[Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images]