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The Homeless Look

Alyssa Goldstein
May 19, 2013

by Alyssa Goldstein

Income GapFor the past few days, this video of writer Greg Karber giving Abercrombie & Fitch clothes to the homeless has been going viral on my Facebook newsfeed. Karber started this project in response to A&F CEO Mike Jeffries’ statement that “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids....We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” In order to take A&F’s cool factor down a notch, Karber went to his local Goodwill, bought all the A&F clothes he could find, and distributed them to the homeless. More than a dozen of my friends have shared his video, many of them leftists. It’s not hard to see why Karber’s response might seem appealing: Jeffries certainly deserves to be condemned (though reprimanding a grown man for being an exaggerated stereotype of a middle school bully is not exactly a controversial stance), and embarrassing him while helping others seems to be a worthy goal. I can usually appreciate trolling the rich and powerful, but at whose expense does it truly come?

Karber frames his project as a “rebranding” effort. Since Jeffries doesn’t want uncool people wearing his company’s clothes, Karber donates those clothes to the homeless, who are supposedly the uncoolest people of all. In doing so, he perpetuates the same logic that leads A&F to burn unsold or damaged clothes rather than donate them. Karber’s effort only reinforces the idea that the homeless are so debased that any association with them is degrading. Like an anti-Midas, a homeless person’s touch magically turns a cool brand to shit. Rather than challenging this dehumanizing idea, Karber makes it the punchline of his joke.

Karber’s short video offers us a brief montage of him handing out A&F clothes to homeless people in Los Angeles. “It was time to do some charity,” he intones over the inspirational music. “At first, people were reluctant to accept the clothes. Perhaps they were afraid of being perceived as narcissistic date rapists. But pretty soon, they embraced it wholeheartedly, and my expedition was a huge success.” We do not hear whether Karber explained his scheme to the homeless people to whom he gave the clothes, and if he did, we don’t hear what they thought of it. Karber’s admission that some of the homeless people he encountered were reluctant to accept the clothes is quickly followed by a tepid joke and a generous heap of self-congratulation, but it’s not difficult to imagine why the recipients might not be so thrilled to receive Karber’s gifts. It appears as though Karber hands off the clothes to people sitting on the curb or walking down the street without inquiring whether the clothes are needed, wanted, or if they are even the right size.

The feel-good aspect of Karber’s campaign hinges on the thankfulness of the homeless upon receiving charitable donations, but why expect the homeless to be thankful instead of mad as hell? The “poor and unfortunate,” to use Karber’s phrase, do not owe a debt of gratitude for a ratty A&F shirt from Goodwill, or for anything else the affluent deign to give them. The poor are not “unfortunate” in the same way that a victim of a freak accident or string of bad coincidences is unfortunate. Rather, they have been denied justice.

Because poverty and homelessness are so common, the raw, terrifying cruelty of the fact that many people are deprived of houses and clothing can become dulled for those of us who don’t have to experience that cruelty. It isn’t possible, realistic, or desirable to sustain the amount of horror and rage that this should rightfully provoke in us. But if Greg Karber felt even a fraction of the horror and rage that he should be feeling, he would surely find it unimaginable to use homeless people’s genuine need for clothing as a prop in a stunt to needle an obnoxious CEO. We should all find it unimaginable to encourage him.