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Can We Really Label Racist Teens as Racist?

A few days ago, online feminist magazine Jezebel decided to publish an article for their racism column that exposed all of the tweets sent by high-schoolers across the country that used the n-word after Obama’s re-election. Jezebel followed-up by contacting these teenagers’ high schools to determine whether they had a policy about hate speech, and decided to out these kids by publishing their full names online. So, done. We’ve got a black president, and we can move on knowing that racism is solved, right?

I know my peeps are with me when I say, ummm. NO.

Is this really how we have resorted to addressing racism in our country? By simplifying such a complex institution into the use of a single racial slur? By slandering the names of kids whose life experiences might not have given them the opportunity to understand the consequences of their actions, or in this case, hashtags?

Of course I am not condoning the behavior of these students, but I’m going to keep it real here. We, as a culture, do not know how to talk about systems of oppression. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, despite teaching some exceptionally bright and compassionate college students in my years of teaching, I have been surprised to find that many are pretty ill-equipped to discuss issues of race. Very few come into the classroom well-versed on the racial history of this country. They may know about Martin Luther King, but struggle to understand the larger Civil Rights movement for which he fought. When we discuss the racist implications of using cultural artifacts like feathers and headdresses as a guise for multi-culturalism, many grow defensive and protest that this is a form of cultural celebration. Yet, very few have ever been exposed to voices from these ethnic communities who make these protests.

Is this completely their fault?

It is true that Americans value the individual, but is it fair to imbue even young people with a foresight that is supposed to overcome their institutional limitations? Granted, I do think that some people are naturally a little more sensitive, a little more thoughtful, a little more critical and self-aware of their privilege than others. But I also know that one of my good friends, who is an exceptionally sensitive person and an advocate for human rights, grew up in a tiny, segregated, rural community where racial slurs were commonly spoken, and it wasn’t until he left his small town and interacted with different groups of people did he gain full awareness of just how much these words hurt.

I remember reading another post on Jez last year titled the “complete guide to hipster racism” that lambasted white kids for wearing ‘Indian headdresses.’ While I agreed with the sentiment, I had an issue with the paternalistic tone and the focus on individual behavior that seemed to imply that these ‘hipsters’ should know better because well, they’re hipsters, and that means they’re ahead of the curve, right? As I wrote in myrecent post on fashion’s problematic relationship with race:

“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.”

When it comes to issues of oppression, we need to start shifting our focus, and subsequent criticism, from individuals to institutions. To the parents who fail to have these important conversations with their children (you’re a mom who grew up in the 70s and can’t talk to your kids about a movement that gave you rights? I’m sorry, but that’s one big struggle). To our educational system that fails to incorporate these important conversations in our mainstream history texts, instead relegating them to the dusty bookshelves that are only taken out during ‘African-American history’ and ‘Women’s history’ months. To our culture that celebrates Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, but focuses little on the suffering caused by European colonialism. To our neighborhoods that have become increasingly segregated thanks in part to ‘white-flight,’ making it almost impossible for so many American kids to go to school with and live near people of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. To the public policies that have increased the gap in wealth between middle-class white and black Americans, thanks in large part to the limiting of value property in these racially segregated neighborhoods. To our media institutions that marginalizes the voices of women and people of color in the newsroom on one end, while depicting them as looters and welfare queens on the other.

I believe that we as a society need to focus on these larger, more important issues of oppression, instead of a few ignorant tweets. And rather than pointing our fingers solely at these teenagers, it would serve us better to also address the societal problems and institutional policies that helped shape their behavior, and in which we are all implicated.

White Flight, defined.

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Post-Halloween musings: Fashion, Appropriation, and Cultural Identity

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.

The zigzags on this ‘Navajo’ hipster panty from Urban Outfitters actually represent lightning, and are worn by the Navajos as a symbol of protection, while the star designs are taken from the ‘four sacred mountains on each corner of the sacred Navajo homeland.’ – Navajo educator Ruth Roessel

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.

Turning slavery into a fashion statement, and on white models, nonetheless. (Photo courtesy of Vogue Italia)

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.

Victoria’s Secret ‘Sexy Geisha outfit’ was part of their Go East selection and promised an ‘exotic adventure.’ The line has since been removed due to protest (photo courtesy of fashionbombdaily.com)

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.

From Fashion Night’s Out, ‘Pow-Wow’ party (photo courtesy of Native Appropriations)

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!

Further Reading:

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