The Gap clothing store has pulled an advert featuring a white girl leaning on a younger black girl after receiving complaints that the image was racist.

The younger girl is the adoptive sister of the older one. Their mother, actress Brooke Smith of Grey's Anatomy, said everyone needs to take a breath.

In the new advert, which promotes a partnership between Gap and Ellen Degeneres' brand ED, a 12-year-old girl from a youth performance group is shown resting her arm on a fellow group member, her eight-year-old sister. They are flanked by two other white girls – one does a handstand while the other strikes a pose.

One critic tweeted that the ad promoted "passive racism" while another said: "@GapKids proving girls can do anything ... unless she's Black. Then all she can do is bear the weight of White girls."

Responding to the criticism, Gap spokesperson Debbie Felix said: "As a brand with a proud 46-year history of championing diversity and inclusivity, we appreciate the conversation that has taken place and are sorry to anyone we've offended." She added: "We are replacing the image with a different shot from the campaign, which encourages girls [and boys] everywhere to be themselves and feel pride in what makes them unique."

But some took the view that others were getting a tad too touchy. "The child in the ad is not an 'armrest,' she's the other girl's little sister," Nathalie Yves Gaulthier, the founder of the girls' performance troupe Le Petit Cirque, told The Blaze. "They are a very close family. The child is a very young member with Le Petit Cirque, a humanitarian cirque company, and therefore a wee shyer" on a video for the ad "than the more seasoned older outgoing girls."

Gaulthier added that she was "deeply saddened" by the accusations of racism. Le Petit Cirque is "extremely supportive of dialogue in our country to move past any racial barriers," she said in a statement.

Gap swapped out the original photo with another one of the same four girls, this time the younger sister was hugging one of the other girls in the shot.