Where American is Made: Shinola as Neo-Colonialism in Detroit

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Shinola, the New Old Face of White Supremacist Settler Colonialism

If the above photo and text seems confusing or extreme, I would have had agreed with you prior to my new relation with Shinola. The photo (pictured above) is an example of images one would find if they walked towards the bathroom of Shinola’s Midtown location in Detroit, MI. This is just one of many problematic aspects of this popular, booming American luxury lifestyle brand. If you live in Southeastern Michigan, or if you’ve peripheral attention on the City of Detroit, you’ve probably heard of Shinola –the artisanal watch and bike specialist claiming to be the Return of American Manufacturing as well as Where American is Made.

If American is defined by imperial, capitalist white supremacy, then the $700.00 watches, $1000.00 bikes, pimped through the “Made in Detroit” rhetoric is decidedly that: American. Shinola is not the first capitalist venture to promote itself as the vanguard of the 21st century American working class (the Return of Manufacturing in America) but its technique for convincing us of this reconstructive project is both racist and economically exploitative: re-settling Detroit amidst its “re-birth” (gentrification) by rapidly accumulating property while acting like its boutique scheme is a social justice campaign (appealing to the white savior-consumer complex). If you are even remotely suspicious, let alone critical of gentrification, and any capitalist project parading itself as rebirth-in-blight, then Shinola stinks like hot shit. Recently, I began a job working at an autonomous Café located inside Shinola and was shocked and disgusted with what I began to learn. I’d like to share with you my findings and ongoing investigation on this young but slimy (handsomely funded) operation.

Shinola Owner: Billionaire Tom Kartsotis, Former CEO of Fossil Watches

Time tested truth: be wary of billionaires, especially billionaires that take interest in a City gutted by deindustrialization; racist policing and policies, land grabs; the mass withdrawal of social welfare programs used to supplement the once well employed working class of post WWII America (of which Detroit is seen as a historically critical hub). Tom Kartsotis sold his share in Fossil Watches for over 1.8 billion dollars prior to starting Shinola. It is no wonder that shortly after the 2013 opening of Shinola in Midtown (Detroit), its watch factory/corporate headquarters a few miles north in the New Center, that a whopping eight additional stores have opened internationally, along with other Shinola owned stores such as Willys, a clothing boutique. Expansion this rapid is one of many signs that Shinola is just another capitalist venture exploiting the highly brandible mythos of Detroit, superficially evoking and performing its “rugged” working class history as aesthetic for the white suburban wealthy who’s families fled the City decades ago.

Evoking then Romanticizing a Racist History of Black Servitude

It took me until my third shift at the Café inside Shinola to become truly mortified at what I was associating myself with. The flint of my realization was Shinola’s former life (which has no literal relation other than its shared name) as a early/mid-20th century shoe polish. For me, shoe polish evokes the image of a Black youth shining a rich white businessman’s shoe, thus being a commodity signifying Black servitude. I’d seen this representation countless times such that no one example stuck out to me; I’d assimilated it into my racial imaginary. I texted my partner my hunch/realization and she sends me back this image:


The Black face, minstrel character, Sambo, whose body is literally the Shinola canister. Shinola literally was a racist brand, similar to the popular image of a Black waiter serving a bottle of coke. Connecting this advertisement with the photo at the beginning of this piece, the one located near the bathroom in Shinola: Black children, assumably their mother, and a white women, ambiguously trapped inside Shinola, or stuck outside, window shopping/not being let in. It’s hard for me to come to any other conclusion about this relationship other than Shinola is intentionally evoking and romanticizing a racist past in one of the most racially contentious U.S. cities, a City that saw a massive exodus of its white middle class population during the mid-20th century due to profound racial violence. Why else would one resurrect the name of a brand with such problematic history? This is not ignorance or naivite but a nod to the racist kitsch imaginary that liberal white Americans secretly adore (think “Gone with the Wind” here) and still associate with the Black working class of Detroit of whom consumers believe they are aiding when they shop at Shinola. Shinola might defend itself here by patting itself on the back for being the Return of American Manufacturing by employing two-hundred and fifty Michigan natives at the Detroit-based factory (which only produces roughly 20% of the total Shinola products, the rest being produced elsewhere in places like Wisconsin (the bikes) and Brooklyn (the watches)) but this is hardly the return of anything but a part of the whole: re-colonization of Detroit by the white middle class for whom the products are branded and designed for, only this time around, customers won’t feel guilty.

Fast-tracking Gentrification Through the Rapid Accumulation of High Demand Property

If you haven’t been to the Midtown location, you might be surprised to learn that Shinola owns an entire block of Canfield Street in the heart of gentrified Detroit, including five commercial retail spaces, luxury refurbished lofts, a “Shinola Dog Park” for that clean colonial lawn aesthetic, and  plans for a three-thousand square foot expansion for the Midtown store. Those familiar with the contemporary happenings regarding gentrification in the City might find Shinola’s property acquisition all too similar to Quicken Loans’ billionaire, Dan Gilbert, who owns a nauseating nine million square feet of property in Detroit. I myself have witnessed frequent hoards of GM and Quicken Executives, who are on bus tours around Detroit, fill the store affirming my assumptions of what class this store exists for. These 1 Percenters have been celebrated as the vangaurd of “rebuilding” Detroit, but for whom is the rebuilding for? Certainly not the poor and working class communities of color, who have been aggressively attacked for decades by classist, racist policy and governing, only most recently with Governor Rick Snyder’s emergency manager law, allowing for the governor to unilaterally appoint a private manager to take over control of an entire City’s finances if that City is deemed “failing” (Snyder is publicly and financially supported by both Gilbert and Kartsotis); simply, the City is being “reborn” for white hipster youth, their yuppie older siblings, and their backyard-grilling auto-industry executive parents.

Call it like it is: Shinola is Neo-colonialist

When a billionaire not even from Detroit claims to know what Detroit needs and invests millions of dollars into property, branding, and “rebirthing” the City, be wary. Sure, bringing jobs into a City with high unemployment and extensive poverty is beneficial to some extent, but when those jobs are geared solely towards the benefit of a profiteering billionaire and the development of a consumerist playground-colony for the white suburban wealthy and new urban gentrifier class, that’s just another form of exploitation and problematic branding. The rate at which the company is expanding after just two short years paired with the rhetorical gymnastics of “restoring the working class” (what you buy when you buy Shinola) looks a lot like the City’s new self-promoted manager. The white landlord in charge of building up “from the ruins” a new society (rebirthing) is nothing but the most recent manifestation of the long and bloody history of colonialism: white settlers that arrived in this country 600 years ago to do the bidding of God, now, the bidding of the free market. Under the delusion and violent lie that “nothing existed here before,” Shinola sees infinite profit in the vulnerable, precarious City of Detroit. This is definitionally neo-colonial. The native residents are likely all to familiar with these white barbarians hiding beneath the white savior’s mask (or hood, take your pick!) and won’t be fooled so easily. As Black Lives Matter organizer Deray McKesson says, “stay woke,” ya’ll.

Where American is Made: Shinola as Neo-Colonialism in Detroit was written by a former Shinola Café Barista in 2015. Send future inquiries and comments to hello@keepypsiblack.org.

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