Nike recently announced a new line of athletic hijabs, making them the first multinational fashion/clothing company to do so. How progressive! And yes, they do have their “swoosh” corporate logo on the side.
Liberals will likely laud this move, and conservatives will likely get irritated, but I’d prefer to get away from America’s culture wars and ponder what the supply chain for manufacturing these hijbas will look like. As of 2014, most of Nike’s clothing was manufactured in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Malaysia. Any guesses as to what conditions might be like for the Muslim women working in the Indonesian, Pakistani, and Malaysian sweatshops that will be making Nike’s hijabs? I’m a bit surprised that Bangladesh isn’t on that list, but looks like Nike has slowly backed out of the country since the series of garment factory collapses in 2013, most notably the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers.
Point being, mainstream culture wars in the West around race, religion, etc. tend to completely ignore the way discrimination functions in global capitalism — especially when the focus of discussion is on the aesthetic nature of commodities, and are driven by the public-relations strategies of powerful multinational corporations. And it isn’t like people don’t understand the inherently superficial nature of corporate liberalism (after all, “college diversity brochure” is a constant punchline all by itself), but it still feels like this kind of cringey pandering is the dominant trend of anti-racist theory and practice in the US.
The juxtaposition between mainstream corporate liberalism against the racialized and violent nature of global capitalism is captured beautifully in the introduction of this recent essay on race and the 2016 election:
Back in the day, two knucklehead members of my old union local at a Union Carbide plant in New Jersey fashioned KKK hoods out of chemical filtration paper and paraded through the lunchroom on Halloween. The corporate HR executive sent to investigate summarily terminated both workers within hours of arriving at the plant. She loudly proclaimed the company’s “zero tolerance” to racial harassment.
Now this was very interesting considering that her employer was the prime suspect in the unpunished industrial murder of 764 mostly African American workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the 1930’s and its current corporate chairman, Warren Anderson, was a fugitive from justice wanted by the Indian government in connection with the 1984 criminal manslaughter of at least 15,000 Indians in Bhopal. Over the next 15 years, the same HR exec who showed Phil and John the door was the point person in the shutdown of all three unionized Union Carbide plants in New Jersey, leaving behind a series of toxic waste sites contaminating communities throughout the state and 2,000 black, white and Hispanic workers, many suffering from uncompensated industrial diseases.
This episode comes to mind while contemplating the detritus of the Republican and Democratic conventions and the growing trope that the rage of the white (male) working class has propelled both the Trump campaign and the critique of the Clinton campaign from the left. The politics of race and gender often obscure much more than they reveal. It is true that individual white workers can be horribly racist and misogynist. But it is also true that the worship of “diversity” often serves as a cover for gross hypocrisy and ruthless class rule.
Obviously, the take-away here should not be that individual acts of racism, bigotry, prejudice, etc. should be tolerated. On the contrary, these people should (and do) get their ass kicked. But casting individual prejudice as 100% the source of racism and bigotry, as many mainstream liberal commentators seem to argue, ignores the larger systematic ways in which racialization is an inherent tendency of an unequal and hierarchical capitalist world, and in fact can often be manipulated to justify the power and privilege of the ruling class. Nike hijabs will do very little to either fight Islamophobia in the US or raise the status of working-class Muslim women globally. But expropriating and collectivizing Nike’s Asian factories, on the other hand…