(Photo courtesy: Robert Way via iStock)

Content Note: Article contains mention of anti-Asian slurs and descriptions of violence.

After a year of pandemic-fueled anti-Asian hate crimes, U.S. corporations have finally started decrying anti-Asian violence. Athletic wear maker Lululemon recently joined the chorus in early March, sharing #StopAsianHate messages on social media. However, it’s difficult to take the company’s acknowledgement that “there are instances in our history where we let this community down” seriously when one of those instances is the way the company allegedly got its name.

In 2004, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson reportedly said he chose the name because “it was funny to watch [Japanese people] try to say it.” 

“The reason the Japanese liked [my former skateboard brand, ‘Homeless’] was because it had an L in it and a Japanese marketing firm wouldn’t come up with a brand name with an L in it … It’s a tough pronunciation for them,” Wilson said. 

Wilson denied making this comment in a 2015 interview, but it’s hard to believe his denial because I’ve heard “jokes” like that my whole life. 

I’m Filipina and white. While “jokes” about Asian people having a hard time pronouncing Ls and claims of COVID-infected “bat fried rice” were aimed at East Asians, they still hit me because Asians are often “otherised” and treated as a monolith in this country. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t Chinese when the boy I had a crush on in fourth grade called me a chink. Each time I’ve been told I looked “exotic,” it didn’t matter what variety of Asian I was. Every single instance stung and contributed to a culture that sees people like me as perpetual foreigners.

I’ve lost track of how many times white people have asked me, “Where are you from?” People always seemed unsatisfied when I told them I was born in California. They’re convinced that I must be from some other country because of the way I look—that they belong here more than I do.

“You don’t belong here!” is what the man who attacked a 65-year-old Filipina woman in New York City yelled at her. He knocked her to the ground and then kicked her three times in the head. I doubt he cared which variety of Asian she was. I doubt the bystander who closed the door in front of her while she was lying on the sidewalk cared, either. And when Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 for being Japanese, the fact that he was actually Chinese didn’t save him. 

When people commented on Lululemon’s #StopAsianHate Instagram posts in March about the origins of its name, the company responded: “We want you to know this is not who we are today nor the future we choose. Our founder has not been part of lululemon for many years. We are focused on expressing our support for the Asian community.” 

Corporate statements against racism aren’t actually useful if they’re not followed by concrete action. If Lululemon wants to truly express support for our communities, there is at least one way it can make an active difference: The company needs to change its name.

Lululemon can’t pretend its problems with anti-Asian racism left with Wilson, either. Last year while Asian Americans were sounding the alarm about the dangers of anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric about the pandemic, a Lululemon art director posted a link to a T-shirt emblazoned with “bat fried rice” and a Chinese takeout container on his personal Instagram account. The company fired him after public outcry. 

Was this an isolated incident, or was he part of a toxic culture? I don’t know, and that is a problem. A company cannot both fight anti-Asian racism and keep a name that is associated with making fun of Asian people.  

It’s funny to watch them try to say it. For me, every instance of hearing or seeing the name Lululemon is another tiny racist jab.

Whether the company wants to confront it or not, the name “Lululemon” is already tied to anti-Asian racism, and it won’t be long before people start to wonder if the anti-Asian racism of the company name is actually a feature, not a bug, for the brand. If they won’t be motivated by a sense of moral obligation to an at-risk community—which includes their customers—maybe they’ll be motivated by the threat of losing their customers’ money.

Lululemon is a profitable brand that has products that are bought and worn by countless people around the world. However, the company’s name is a microaggression that spreads quietly and insidiously. Some people think microaggressions aren’t that bad because they’re often unintentional. But their impact matters, because they accumulate and enable much larger aggressions, from decades of brutal colonialism in the Philippines and Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps on U.S. soil, to the attacks on our elders all over the country and the murders of six working-class Asian women in Atlanta by a white man who thought they were too much of a “temptation” to live. Microaggressions enable indifference to this violence. People like the bystander who closed the door on the beaten Filipina elder and those who dismissed the Atlanta murderer’s actions as motivated by a sex addiction—not by racism—are guilty of this.

I’m tired of seeing people acknowledge that Lululemon’s name is problematic, shrug, and keep raving about their yoga pants when we’re being attacked by violent racists and our children are being bullied as “COVID carriers.”

I realize that in a time of racial violence, ongoing crises of anti-Black police brutality, deportation, a pandemic, and catastrophic climate change that hit communities of color particularly hard, the name of a clothing company is not this country’s most pressing race-related problem. But to fight racism, we need changes on both macro and micro levels. This includes understanding the danger of ignoring racist microaggressions and making lasting change to prevent more harm—especially when you’re a company as powerful as Lululemon.

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Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in the Detroit area.