Kendall Jenner recently went for a latte or any number of sundry errands a starlet runs in Los Angeles, wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd Confederate flag-emblazoned baby tee, quickly turning one of fashion's most innocuous of items clothing into a thing of controversy.
Digging up a particularly cruel and harrowing time in our country's history with her tone-deaf top, America's newly minted style sweetheart only added insult to injury by apparently meeting up with Justin Bieber moments later (who, might we add, knows a thing about evoking crypto-racist rhetoric).
The shirt might have come from a vintage store or a sale rack; Jenner may have grabbed it seeing it completely removed from America's impeachable history regarding slavery and racial unrest. But her error — in wearing the tee — becomes the perfect opportunity to consider how symbols of racial inequity do not exist within a vacuum.
Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to "reclaim" this problematic American artifact throughout their career, adorning their album covers with the rebel flag to associate their brand of rock with their Southern roots. But as lead guitarist Garry Rossington explained to CNN in 2012, the band's use of the divisive flag proved problematic over time due to its connotations:
"Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers, that’s what it was about. We didn’t want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.”
While Rossington appears almost sheepish in the retelling of the flag's history, with passing references to the Civil War and the opaque idea of "Southern tradition," he fails to make mention of the North American slave trade which remains a principle factor in the war's launch. Truncating flag's symbolism — all the turmoil and terror — into simply "race stuff," he and the band attempt to create a healthy distance between their music and an uncomfortable conversation regarding race in this country. But truth be told, the flag was already associated with the connotations Rossington speaks of since the debut of the band's first album in 1973.
Of course, Kendall's own brother-in-law, the one and only Kanye West, confronted this history head-on in his attempt to co-opt the flag for his Yeezus tour merchandise. Trotting out flight jackets and ripped tees embellished with the "Stars and Bars" to commemorate his 2013 tour, West told Los Angeles' 97.1 radio station in an interview,
"You know the confederate flag represented slavery in a way — that's my abstract take on what I know about it. So I made the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It's my flag now. Now what are you going to do?”
Brazen in his subversion of the flag and its historical meanings, West's political project was ambitious. Yet it ended up being highly reductive in its assumption that the Confederate flag could be used to build a connection between the figurative modern consumerist "slaves" and the very human ones exploited and forced to be the bedrock of our American economy. The connection might be there, but conflating a discussion on class wars with that of slavery through a decorated concert tote bag obscures a history that is hardly ever told correctly.
We can quibble over whether Kendell Jennner's tee is inherently racist or just a highly insensible fashion choice, but just as Ben Affleck skirted discussing his family's past as slave owners and was so rightfully handed his ass in the media for doing so, an avoidance perpetuates this myth that we're beyond the discussion of race and all its violence. When in fact, its continued mishandling from one generation to the next, from one baby tee to another, proves we've never actually had it.
Marjon Carlos is a style and culture writer for Fusion who boasts a strong turtleneck game and opinions on the subjects of fashion, gender, race, pop culture, and men's footwear.