When Damali Ayo was 12, her parents sent her to day camp with 20 white kids. The kids were fascinated by the way Ayo’s hair maintained its texture in the pool. Even after she deliberately dunked her head in the water, they were convinced that black hair doesn’t get wet.
This experience stuck with her as she launched her art career in the predominantly white city of Portland, Oregon. Ayo often felt she was the token black person relied upon for opinions and advice precisely because of her skin color.
Two years ago, the preppy mall staple Abercrombie & Fitch released a line of t-shirts that paired early 1900s–style caricatures of Chinese men (complete with coolie hats, big grins, and slanted eyes) with slogans like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service—Two Wongs Can Make It White” and “Wok-N-Bowl—Let the Good Times Roll—Chinese Food & Bowling.” The clothing chain then professed great surprise when Asian-American activists cried foul; A&F’s pr flack Hampton Carney told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We personally thought Asians would love this t-shirt.... We are truly and deeply sorry we’ve offended people.” As a result of continued protests, the shirts were eventually pulled from stores (and quickly became hot commodities on Ebay).