Can a Dress Shirt Be Racist?

Moises Velasquez-Manoff, Backchannel, March 31, 2016

In 2008, an entrepreneur named Seph Skerritt was frustrated with the way he shopped for clothes. Then a student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, he chafed at the time wasted while trying on garments in stores. Often, he thought, you settled on an ill-fitting item just to get the drudgery over with.

While on an internship in Asia, Skerritt had encountered the effortless magic of having a tailor custom-fit your shirt. Why not improve on that concept, he wondered, with an online service that fitted your shirts by asking you questions, and then mailed you the garments?

He christened his company Proper Cloth. Naysayers told him that when customers input their measurements, they often made mistakes–the idea wouldn’t scale. But Skerritt thought that guessing, even if one’s guesses were occasionally off, was still preferable to the chaos and disappointment experienced in a physical store.

So he set about developing an algorithm that could customize your shirt without needing a tape measure. As a check against errors in customers’ reported measurements, he thought up a list of basic questions–height, weight, and so on–that could serve as indicators of shirt size. Then, using these questions, he made shirts for 30 guys who worked at the New York City tech incubator hosting his startup, called Dogpatch Labs.

When the volunteers tried on their shirts, Skerritt quickly saw what worked and what didn’t. {snip}

He noticed an odd pattern. In that first batch of 30, the shirts fit best on testers who were Caucasians. They seemed to fit worse, in a predictable way, on people who weren’t Caucasian. All subjects of one ancestry–Asian, say–seemed to require the same general alterations. Skerritt noted the anomaly and added a question on what he called “ethnicity”: Asian, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, or “I’m not sure.” The question, Skerritt says, has proven invaluable to sizing his customers’ shirts.

There’s no denying the satisfaction of a smartly tailored shirt. But with this one question, the once mundane world of dress shirts is now dabbling in a kind of racial profiling. Are we ready to dredge up centuries of racial strife, simply for a perfect fit?

I bet you have two warring opinions of this web site’s “ethnicity” question. One is that we humans have a long history of buying clothes without explicitly considering our ancestry, so this innovation sounds, if not racist, at least racially inappropriate. The other is that, well, maybe our body types do differ by race–and just accepting this reality frees us from having to wrestle with the Caucasian body proportions that dominate most clothing design.

So here’s my question: With the “ethnicity” question, is this entrepreneur courageously addressing the proposition that we’re different according to our ancestry, and propelling us toward a post-racial future? Or is he pretending to be scientific as a marketing gimmick, while actually enforcing false, outdated and possibly dangerous ideas about race?

{snip}

When I asked about Proper Cloth’s “ethnicity” question, [biological anthropologist Alan] Goodman had this to say: “Calling groups white or black is a pre-Darwinian view of biology that does not fit the facts of human variation.” Other anthropologists I spoke to also roundly denounced the question. Race, they say, is a social construct.

Here’s what they mean: if you were to travel across the Eurasian continent from Portugal to Japan, say, there would be no river, forest or discrete boundary where people suddenly started looking “Asian” (or “European” if you traveled from east to west). Instead, changes in physical appearance would occur so gradually and imperceptibly that you probably wouldn’t notice. You’d only be aware that, once in Japan, people definitely looked different than in Portugal.

The assertion is that the traits we associate with “race”–hair color and texture, skin pigmentation, epicanthic eye folds and whatever else–actually occur in gradients throughout the human family, not clean breaks. So much variation occurs within what we call “races” that to ascribe any particular traits to a certain race is, anthropologists say, misguided.

{snip}

He [Goodman] was objecting to how we talked about the differences in our bodies, not that the differences existed. He was saying that casting these distinctions as “racial” was incorrect (and calling these labels “ethnicities,” as Proper Cloth does, is no less problematic). It’s also potentially dangerous.

Anthropologists are keenly aware of this peril, because it comes from their own field. It was early “anthropologists” (those are air-quotes) who first described a “natural” caste system of humans that featured certain whites on top. That pseudoscience was then used to justify slavery, imperialism, colonialism, Nazi atrocities and more–to repeatedly excuse the brutal exploitation and even extermination of one group of people by another.

{snip}

For over a century, the U.S. military has measured incoming recruits’ bodies. In the Civil War, height, weight and BMI were used to determine physical fitness, and to exclude men with diseases, such as tuberculosis. In World War I, these measurements helped determine how much recruits could carry, and how far they could march.

{snip}

This series of measurements, comprising thousands of recruits, is known as ANSUR — the Army Anthropometry Survey. And it includes race. When I asked, anthropologists tended to pooh-pooh the dataset. Among other objections, they noted that military recruits were not a random sample of Americans. But I encountered a different opinion among industrial designers.

Matthew Reed, a researcher in anthropometry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, flat out called ANSUR the “best-gathered anthro data in the world.” Not only was the dataset accurate and reliable, in his view, it could save lives.

Imagine body armor that doesn’t completely cover your vital organs, or is too long or too short, making it horribly uncomfortable to wear, so you take it off. Imagine if you found yourself in a nerve gas attack and your mask doesn’t fit properly because it was designed for a different kind of face. (One study found that American-made gas masks fit poorly on “Chinese” faces.)

The differences in body type according to race could be striking. Reed sent me a graphic, based on data from the 1988 iteration of ANSUR, illustrating seated height versus standing height for Caucasian and African American men. Most African Americans had a shorter seated height compared to Caucasians of the same overall stature, meaning longer leg bones and shorter torsos. Asians, meanwhile, skewed slightly in the other direction, with taller sitting heights and longer torsos than both Caucasians and African-Americans.

The army doesn’t use this information to individually fit uniforms and gear, Reed explained, but to plan and manage costs. If the army knows that 15 percent of recruits are African American, when it orders, say, 20,000 bullet-proof vests, it will ensure that 15 percent conform to what it believes is their relatively shorter proportions. “That’s really important for the army,” Reed told me. “If you do that wrong, you end up with stuff that you need to store. And you don’t have enough of what you do need.”

Reed points out that race is also important in civilian contexts. Think about your car. Reed designs crash test dummies. If a car is tested only with “Caucasian” dummies, it may not be as safe for Asians or African Americans. Why? Leg length determines how far back you sit from the steering wheel–a major impact point–and your proximity to the airbag. Seated height also affects what you can see. “We don’t want to build a dummy that’s based only on white guys,” Reed said.

{snip}

The dream here is to recast the physical differences that underlie what we call race as mere variation, not deviations from an ideal norm. But here’s the conundrum: Is that accomplished best by ignoring race (as some anthropologists argue), or by explicitly acknowledging it, even if racial differences aren’t as real or predictable as we’ve been led to believe, and even if the language we use to talk about them is archaic?

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