Note: An abridged version of this piece is now on the Huffington Post.
Hey everyone! So I’m sorry I’ve been a bit strugglin’ with my posts … I just got back from a conference on Fair Trade, which was pretty much the chillest thing ever (umm …. inspiring panels led by Colombian banana farmers + dark chocolate covered bananas + Tagua nut bracelets made by Ecuadorian Fair Trade farmers = Can we talk girlfriends? Can we?!) I absolutely can’t wait to blog about it in a few weeks, so stay tuned for an upcoming series on sustainability and Fair Trade! (I know it will be hard to sleep at night until then, but bear with me GFs, it will be worth it ;))
So here’s the thing. I actually wasn’t planning on writing about the issue of cultural appropriation during Halloween, mainly because there are so many bloggers doing amazing work on the subject. But I have to admit that I found it difficult to ignore these links of racist Halloween costumes, or these pictures of people dressed up as ‘sexy Natives.’ And one of the reasons why I struggle so much with this level of cultural flippancy is because I can understand to some extent, why it is difficult for some people to see ‘fashion statements’ as something that can hurt. But as I’ve written before on this blog, my relationship with fashion hasn’t exactly been a harmonious one. Being engaged and critical can often suck the fun out of an industry that is supposed to be fun and based in fantasy. I remember wearing my ‘feather earrings’ that I bought at a flea market years ago and people commenting on how I looked ‘Indian.’ I remember taking that as a compliment and thinking that was pretty cool, and I’m pretty sure I wore those bright red ‘not-so-Indian’ earrings all week. Because I am ethnically ambiguous, I can float somewhat easily in that ‘Latina/mixed/other’ spectrum, and while I believe this has afforded me empathy for different groups of people, I would argue that it is also easier for me to use fashion in a way that allows me to ‘try on’ different cultural identities.’ I abused that privilege years ago with those culturally insensitive earrings, and I sucked for that. I’m sorry.
So what is cultural appropriation? In its most simplistic definition, it is the seizing of another culture without their consent. It’s taking an otherwise complex culture and turning it into a caricature. It’s the ‘Navajo’ shirts that Urban Outfitters sells that essentializes the many different American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people in the United States into one broad ‘Native’ tribe defined as Navajo. It’s the celebration of Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, and the erasure of the imperialist raping and enslaving from our history. It’s the Victoria’s Secret ‘Geisha’ lingerie line that featured white models in Orientalist eye makeup and outfits, which in the words of blogger Nina Jacinto, only perpetuates the stereotype of Asian women as objects of sexual fantasy, trading in ‘real humanness for access to culture.’ It’s the Vogue dance-style that was attributed to Madonna when it really originated with gay urban men of color. It’s Gwen Stefani wearing cultural and spiritual objects such as bindis as fashion, and using Asian-American dancers as props, always claiming that she is celebrating their culture.
It’s also the Dolce & Gabbana ‘black busts’ earrings that commodified black bodies and were defended on the grounds that they ‘represented’ Sicilian Blackmoore pottery, ignoring the legacy of race-based slavery which influenced this tradition. And while we’re on the subject of earrings, who can forget when Vogue Italia referenced large hoop earrings as ‘slave earrings’ in their fall 2011 issue, citing the ‘women of color’ who were ‘brought’ to the United States as their fashion inspiration? Brought, not sold. Brought, not enslaved. Cultural appropriation, done.
Because cultural appropriation is so often found in fashion, it is not taken that seriously. Fashion is fun and fantasy, wrapped up in a bright pick Victoria’s Secret bag that can then be discarded when it no longer fits. Perhaps that’s why on Halloween, a one-night event where the whole purpose is to take on another identity, we witness so much unapologetic appropriation. After all, what you wear doesn’t define you, right? I mean, just because someone is wearing a headdress doesn’t actually mean they have internalized the racism that is responsible for the eradication of tribes and their cultural practices?
For me, the issue isn’t so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly ‘harmless’ statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as ‘Indians’ for Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.
Furthermore, the privileging in our culture of Western fashion that emphasizes ‘newness’ as a sign of progress and change tends to view American Indian tribes as examples of more traditional cultures who use clothing for utilitarian purposes. As Dakota artist and activist Bobby Wilson put it, we’re fixated on this idea that “native people are frozen in time.” Despite the efforts of minority students from the University of Ohio last year, many Americans still view American Indians, and other minority groups, as a costume, not a culture. And because fashion is seen as so frivolous and something that goes out of trend so quickly, many argue that the industry’s fascination with exoticizing certain cultures shouldn’t be taken seriously. In fact, many counter-arguments are made to cultural appropriation that on the contrary, minority groups should feel privileged by this representation of their culture by the mainstream.
On dressing up ‘cultural’ for Halloween…
So here’s the problem. The argument that you can ‘try on’ a cultural identity for a day and then discard it speaks to the ability of being able to return to your special place of privilege. You can take off your headdress and sleep at night, knowing that you don’t have to wake up the next morning to confront a history of colonialism and genocide that has left your community living in an impoverished reservation and having to deal with segregation, racism, and gross cultural misrepresentation in the form of films, sports mascots, and holidays. As the ‘We’re a Culture, not a Costume’ Campaign put it, “You wear the costume for one night, we wear the stigma for life.”
Americans take pride in our ‘American-ness,’ our cultural traditions that bring us together and include Independence day, apple pie, and the Star Spangled banner. But let’s face it. There have always been some people who are considered more American than others. Just think about the term ‘All-American’ and what it implies: white, blond, attractive, athletic. Are people of color then ‘partial-American?’ Are they not American enough? Does that leave them in the position of having to defend the degree of their American-ness?
And this is why it is so dangerous to ‘dress-up’ as another culture, because a white person who dresses up as a ‘Mexican’ in Arizona doesn’t have to worry that his citizenship will be questioned. He can go to a ‘ghetto’ party and wear his hoodie up in an effort to look more ‘hood’ without fearing that he will get killed like Trayvon Martin. A white person who goes to a bar dressed in blackface doesn’t have to worry about being turned away like a recent Harvard student for no reason other than the color of his skin. He doesn’t have to face the reality that when there is a hurricane, he will be wrongly labeled as a looter and then identified as a ‘refugee,’ a misplaced citizen.
And yes, I realize that there are non-white people who have been guilty of dressing up in ‘Indian’ fashions, as the pictures from Fashion’s Night Out ‘Pow-Wow’ party demonstrates. The appropriation of American Indian culture is widespread and certainly not limited to white people, especially given the fashion industry’s rampant appropriation of Native cultural objects that are spit out for ‘hipster’ consumption. However, I think we need to ask why it is that ‘cultural’ costumes are far more common to wear on Halloween and at theme parties than dressing up as say, a young white male. While people can conceive an image of a ‘ghetto’ costume, a geisha, an Arab terrorist or a ‘Cherokee princess,’ do we actually have a singular vision of what a white male looks like?
Fashion is not frivolous. Clothes, and the way in which we wear them to express our identity and who we are, can have profound meaning. If you really want to honor a culture, why not do it in a more thoughtful manner that brings to light all of its complexities? By doing it through fashion, you run the risk of treating an entire group of people as a trend, something that is in vogue one minute and out the next, easy to dispose of and forget.
Check out this inspiring campaign by Native Appropriations’ Adrienne K, who received not just an official apology from Paul Frank Industries for their “Pow-Wow” party, but a promise that they would remove all Native inspired designs as well as collaborate with a Native artist for future designs!