Black History and Pain is Not #thuglife

A look at Ratsy's "master"/"slave" Instagram post

GIO DONOVAN // FEBRUARY 23, 2018 

"Vintage" slave and master t-shirts sold at Ratsy's thrift store in Oberlin, Ohio.

Photo courtesy of the Ratsy's thrift store Instagram.

This month, Black people around the globe remember important people and events in the history of the African diaspora with Black History Month. Last week, on February 9th, Ratsy Jo Kemp (the owner of Ratsy’s Store) posted on her store’s Instagram a picture of two shirts for sale – in bold black letters across white fabric, one read “Master” and the other “Slave” (The shirts were hanging at the center of the store, on the wall behind the cashier – practically under a spotlight. The post had a handful of hashtags, with some of the most concerning being: #valentinesgift, #loveislove, #beyourself, and (most importantly) #thuglife). Everyday, racist memorabilia and “collectables” depicting harmful messages, blackface, and stereotyped physical features sit in vintage and antique stores across the country. And like H&M’s colossal “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt, actions like these have a harmful impact–intended or not. And almost (if not equally) as harmful as stocking and selling these items, is refusing accountability for the impact and focusing on your own intention.

By the time I went to Ratsy’s on February 13th, the shirts were sold. Ratsy declined to comment. A few hours later, two other Grape staff members went over to talk to her. She was quick to defend herself and her hashtag choice, saying that “It was nothing to it [#thuglife]. I just copy and paste my hashtags from other things and post them. It wasn’t some sort of weird anything. ‘Cause I actually have #thuglife on almost all of my Valentine’s things. It was not specific to that at all.” Ratsy’s as a store is a collection of vintage clothing, accessories, and tchotchkes handpicked by Ratsy. The store is curated by her and she runs her own Instagram. She’s fully in charge of the narrative of the store she puts out into the world. And the most egregious part of this all is that she won’t take ownership of her own actions. She just “thought they were funny” and that “they were sort of a goofy love kind of thing. Nothing more than that.” In defense of herself, she says she is “just an old lady who posts things on the internet. I’m not trying to be a controversial anything.”

In an email on Wednesday, February 14, Ratsy issued further comments:

"I would hate for the fact that I wasn’t able to chat to make any of you think that I don’t care about how whatever I did affected you.

"They had mentioned how upset people were over the shirts and the #thuglife tag, so I took the posts down, since I hadn’t in anyway meant to upset anybody. The tags hadn’t actually been for that post of the shirts, I explained to them that I cut and paste things from other pictures and hadn’t realized that was included, but also hadn’t realized that people would be so upset. When I do use #thuglife, it is intended to be ironic.

I hadn’t realized that I had that hashtag with the shirts and in no way was trying to make any sort of statement. I’m not even sure what the meaning would be. The shirts were vintage from the 70s and were often sold at places like Spencer’s Gifts. They were intended to be crude, like sadomasochistic. I’m not an expert, but they were just a gag gift for couples… Usually sold around Valentine’s Day.

"I have attached a picture from an ad in the 1970’s where you could order the iron on things to make the shirts yourself. They were meant to be funny. As for the #thuglife, although I have used it in the past to be ironic, it seems that many people are misinterpreting it and I will do my best to be more careful in the future.

I have always really enjoyed you college kids and would never do anything on purpose to try to offend you. I try to make sure my store is a safe space for everybody.

"Sorry again for any confusion and I feel terrible that anybody was offended by my post. That was not my intention."

A common thread in her comments was an apology for how people felt and not for the actions themselves. She emphasizes the “ironic” usage of #thuglife and asserts she doesn’t even know what the implications of the hashtag on picture of two shirts saying “Master” and “Slave” could be. By focusing on her intention with the post and language, she’s ignoring the impact they have and putting the blame on the people upset by it for feeling what they feel.

Ratsy is not a unique figure in the Oberlin community. In fact, she’s a reflection of a lot of the student body and what they value. She’s quirky. She’s an advocate even in small ways (like hanging Pride flags throughout her store). Her store is a creation entirely of her own with items ranging from cool condom tins to overalls to photo packets of old family pictures. It is planned out and executed in her own vision. The store is meant to be fun, out there, and edgy. But overlooking the historical context of the words master and slave (during Black History Month, no less) crosses that line. Using #thuglife as a way to get it trending on social media is ignoring the connotations of “thug life” and who is usually referred to as thugs, while also equating “thugs” to masters and slaves (and let’s be real here: the association is with “slave”). “#beyourself” could be applied to the sadomasochistic uses of master and slave (like Ratsy mentioned herself) but even that in itself is an issue. And much like many members of the Oberlin community, her quirky aesthetic is supposed to excuse her racist (overt or covert, intentional or not) actions.

On Friday, February 16th, Ratsy posted an apology to Instagram, Oberlin Classifieds, and Facebook. She reached out to me via text to ask me to spread this apology. She (again) apologized for how people felt and put the onus on them. She did, however, end with “I love you college kids/customers and want you to know that I work extremely hard to make sure that my store is a safe space for everybody” and admit no one told her exactly why they were upset, so she had to make her own assumptions. Well, Ratsy, if you truly do want to make and maintain a safe space, start by educating yourself because it is not on us (especially the black students of Oberlin) to explain to an older, white woman why “master,” “slave” and “#thuglife” are a harmful combination. And yes, the shirts may have been referencing “a weird consensual sex thing from the 70’s,” but these words have a much different connotation to many people that is deeply rooted in a history of subjugation and racism that sticks with us still and that we don’t need reminding of in the form of an “ironic” Valentine’s Gift or Instagram post.

Contact staff writer Gio Donovan at gdonovan@oberlin.edu.

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