Thursday, April 15, 2010

the critical fashion lover's (basic) guide to cultural appropriation

writing about cultural appropriation and racism in fashion is potentially the most controversial topic for fashion writers, with body politics (which isn't completely divorced from these issues) following close behind. those of us who identify as critical, progressive or liberal minded want to think these things will just go away, but cannot ignore all the signs say otherwise; in fact, racism and cultural appropriation seems to be selling more than ever as of late. just look at the fact that white models are still the standard on runways and in magazines, and that outdated, undeniably racist things like blackface will come back and rear their ugly heads in the pages of vogue even in our supposed "post-racial" era.

to be honest, even i have hesistated touching this issue. it is the one that infuriates, perplexes and inspires me most, not only as a fan of fashion but as an activist, ally and writer. in fact, one of the first pieces i ever wrote about fashion was in 2005 about the problematic increasing trend of mocassin or "mocassin inspired" boots for winter. i've tried to write about it since, but there is so much ground to cover that it becomes intimidating (brevity has never been my strong point). with so many visceral and bewildering responses to the issue, it has sadly only lead to a half-dozen unfinished pieces tucked away on my harddrive.

but i can't hold my tongue any longer. i am an avid reader and (generally speaking) fan of jezebel, and with the discussions going on there triggered by adrienne's post at Native Appropriations entitled "Feathers and Fashion: Native Americans Is [sic] In Style" i think it is time for me to put pen to paper and give a sort of "the critical fashion lover's guide to cultural appropriation."

let's begin with the original article in question: while i don't necessarily think Adrienne's article is very clear with its specific criticisms of cultural appropriation, and a lot of her points muddy (i strongly disagree that Outkast is at the very root of this trend, influencing bands like Juliette and the Licks, Bat for Lashes, and Ke$ha, and am prepared to defend that stance) i am excited by the conversations it has triggered. i do think she raises questions that need to be addressed by fans of fashion and participants in hipster culture as of late, questions that i hope to elaborate on here.

what i mainly want to address here are the responses to adrienne's article when it was posted on jezebel, which range from deeply insightful to downright naive and ignorant. instead of taking this opportunity to engage in discussions about the history of colonization in north america, native american resistance/response to these issues, white privilege, or the political power that many different kinds of clothing possess, a lot of people often end up reacting in predictably defensive ways. but don't take my word for it. here are a sampling of comments:

"So... should I not wear minnetonka shoes or feather earrings anymore?" sydbarretsaves
"Am I gonna go to liberal-PC-prison for wearing silver and turquoise jewelry?"

"Really? I'm not allowed to wear a FEATHER IN MY HAIR? Come on" ferociacoutura

"now I feel guilty for loving Adam Ant when I was 12 yo."

as one of my wisest university professors Molly Blyth once said, "guilt is useless unless it leads to action." what does it say about this contentious issue that these are the first questions people are asking themselves, instead of trying to get a more complex understanding of why someone might challenge their choice to wear these things? the fact that these commentors are asking themselves these questions is, yes, a step in the right direction, but the fact that it is happening in a guilt-ridden, dismissive way is pretty disappointing.

unfortunately, for me, they are hardly surprising responses. my very first internet flame-war happened back in 2004 or 2005 on newestwrinkle (for those of you unfamiliar with this community, generally young girls would post pictures of what they wore that week/month and ask for opinions/flattery). a popular (a stylish ((white blonde skinny*)) american girl) and frequent contributor to the community posted pictures from a "cowboys and indians" party she attended. the pictures showed this white-blonde freckled girl with two lines of blue and red smeared across her cheeks, a little headband with a single feather, and of course the (ever popular at the time) mocassins. when commentors like myself and others asked her what the point of this party was and why she thought this was a representation of an "indian," the reaction was astounding. the post ended up generating nearly 200 comments debating issues ranging from racism, stereotypes, cultural appropriation but resoundingly the conclusion was that "fashion is just for fun! you guys take this way too seriously."

the moderators decided to freeze comments on the post, and soon after the original poster deleted the entry altogether. the resounding lesson i, and the handful of other people openly criticizing this costume as (at the very least) problematic and (at the worst) blatantly racist, was that our criticisms were simply not welcome.

in other similar situations, largely framed around "ethnic" or racial stereotype halloween costumes, i have raised these questions to little or no reaction. fashion communities online, and as far as i have seen in real life as well, simply seem to not want to address this important issue at all.

to me, these situations are more than enough reasons for me to try and express why i think cultural appropriation is an important issue for any fashion lover to address, understand, and deconstruct. cultural appropriation can be a very useful tool for critical fashion lovers to navigate these perilous waters of privilege, erasure and ignorance.

my favourite aspect of cultural appropriation is that it can help us begin to deconstruct our sartorial choices and acknowledges the power of clothing as a means of shaping (racial, national, sexual, gender) identity. the exact same piece of clothing can mean very different things to different people (take any politically charged piece of clothing: the hijab, high-heel shoes, doc martens, the keffiyeh, etc) and acknowledging this fact is a very important first step. the very basis of cultural appropriation gets people thinking about questions like, can one piece of clothing "belong" to one culture? what do certain pieces of clothing signify? it moves us away from basic discussions of colour palettes and cuts and styles and trends and moves us towards a more complex theorizing of fashion.

the first time i found cultural appropriation helpful as a framework was deconstructing what makes me uncomfortable in fashion and why. while in my second year of studies at trent university, taking a few native studies classes, i was learning more and more about the long-term effects of colonization on native people in canada. watching documentaries about residential schools, the bureaucratic hurdles communities encounter in struggles for land claims, the third world conditions on reserves in canada, as well as various other institutional forms of racism opened my eyes to the fact that we live in a country that is blind. a country that relegates native people to outdated stereotypes we can tokenize when it suits our government's purposes, but likes to keep its dirty laundry (which in this case could very literally be small-pox ridden hudson's bay blankets) out of sight.

so what does this have to do with the fact that i am uncomfortable when i see a young white girl in a high fashion magazine draped in turquoise jewelry, wearing mocassins and prancing around the desert? because this is the only image we see of native people in north america these days. native american culture is reduced to a trend that can be packaged and sold to profit the fashion industry. native american people are reduced to one dimensional outdated stereotypes, or worse, as an extinct exotic race that once roamed the land, but who no longer live and breathe and resist today.

i have heard a lot of arguments that there are way more important things we could be debating instead of cultural appropriation; that native people themselves don't give a shit if a severely intoxicated white hipster decides to tattoo pocahontas on his leg or if some magazine decides their next nude photoshoot should feature blonde women wearing headdresses. who knows! maybe the jingle dress will be the next hot thing in haute couture, but it doesn't impact the quality of life of the people who make, wear and perform in those dresses.

my response to this is clear and simple; i don't think the issue of institutional racism and discrimination can be completely divorced from the question of cultural appropration. they feed into one another. one would not exist (at least not in the same way) without the other. if we lived in a culture that acknowledged the fact that most of us live on stolen land in north america and that recognized native people as complex, diverse, intelligent people without romanticizing or glamourizing them, i'd like to think that it would put an end to these sorts of reductive stereotypes popping up in fashion, film, music scenes. reducing an entire culture to a simple "inspiration" for your outfit, art project, fashion collection, or photoshoot is disrespectful and unhelpful, especially when we look at the bigger picture.

to keep things brief, i will address two last important issues: context and the fear of the "politically correct" police. in all of the examples given in adrienne's article, they were largely stripped of their context. are all of the examples given equally and explicitly examples of cultural appropriation? in my opinion, not necessarily. many commentors on jezebel pointed out the fact that andre 3000 of outkast is part native and african american, but does this excuse his use of neon-outfitted headdress wearing backup dancers? not really. these are questions i'm still exploring, but it is incredibly important to think about questions of context and intent.

a dangerous thing that can happen in discussions about cultural appropriation is, yes, becoming overly politically correct. when this happens, people end up being silenced and any potential productive discussion ends. everyone ends up getting defensive, but just as bad is becoming righteous. if you identify as an ally, it is fine to give your own personal opinion, but to claim to speak for all native people (as though they compose one homogenous group) is just as problematic as dismissing this as an issue altogether. as with any issue, i highly encourage the critical fashion lover to enter this discussion with an open mind and to be prepared to unlearn a lot of the things you thought you knew.

the biggest problem with the concept of cultural appropriation, in my opinion, is that it doesn't set out any explicit black and white rules for people to follow. as you can see based on the comments on jezebel, people are genuinely confused as to what the "right thing" to do in these situations are, and there's nothing wrong with that. you can't get answers if you aren't asking questions. my advice in these situations is largely about context, intention, and education.

let's say you bought a cute pair of feather earrings and you like how they look. you're white. is this cultural appropriation?

  • are you going to pair them with a pair of mocassins and skimpy dress in an attempt to channel outdated romanticized stereotypes of native women? then yes, i would say that's pretty shitty.
  • are you going to ask who made them and where they come from? are they made in a factory with terrible working conditions? are they synthetic? are they from an endangered bird?
  • how are they marketed/sold to you? are they tagged as "navajo spirit eagle feather" yet made in china and sold by a capitalist chain?
  • you can claim you like them simply for their aesthetic appearance, but why do you like this particular aethestic?

as you can see, there are a lot of questions you can ask yourself about a single pair of earrings, not all of which relate specifically to cultural appropriation. i like to think of myself as a conscious consumer and like to know where my clothes are from, how/when they were made, that sort of thing.

(for the record, i own two pairs of feather earrings; one i received as a gift from six nations while i was in caledonia at a peace and friendship gathering which i unfortunately lost, the other i purchased at a thrift store for 50 cents)

these aforementioned questions can apply to any number of garments for any person who thinks of themselves as a critical consumer of fashion. ask yourself if you're simply wearing it "because you like it" or because it is trendy, and ask if that is enough for you. everyone has different reasons for what they choose to wear and why, and as long as you're prepared to discuss your reasons without engaging in fucked up discussions ignoring your own white privilege, i say go for it.

phew! so, that about covers some of the basics. to end, here are some comments that popped up on jezebel that gave me some hope:
Dressing up as "a Native American" furthers the already popular notion that they aren't real, diverse, complex human beings. There's a reason that dressing up as a white guy isn't nearly as effective on Halloween; there's no homogenous vision of what White Guy looks like. If you've developed a homogenous vision of a particular race, enough that you could conceive of a good costume, then just fucking stay home for the evening. - choppery

if you are a white person who waltzed in here to give your opinion and it was based entirely on how it affects you and your fashion choices, YOUR WHITE PRIVILEGE IS SHOWING. Me, personally, I'm ashamed at how our country was built on the literal and cultural genocide of Native people. It doesn't matter that my ancestors didn't personally do it or that it was like a really long time ago. As an American, I find it shameful. And all I really want to know is, what can I do to show respect to people who are my equals but who are rarely treated that way? Last I checked, appropriating a culture that that has been systematically denigrated is NOT respect. - thesciencegirl wields the

i'm hoping to take some time to speak very specifically about this trend in respect to hipster culture (think roma/"gypsy" people being romanticized in music/fashion) in the last year or two, so this definitely isn't the last you'll hear me talking about this. i look forward to hearing your thoughts! if you're interested in learning more about cultural appropriation from a much more informed source, here are some things you might like to check out.

recommended reading:
black looks: race and representation by bell hooks
national disgrace: canadian government and the residential school system 1879-1986 by john milloy
unpacking the white privilege knapsack by peggy macintosh
me funny and me sexy by drew hayden taylor
"real" indians and others by bonita lawrence
various racialicious posts by jessica yee

recommended viewing:
yellow apparel: when the coolie becomes the cool on vimeo
genocide, assimilation or incorporation: Indigenous Identity and Modes of Resistance lecture by bonita lawrence on vimeo


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Jenae said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. I've honestly never thought about cultural appropriation before until now. Thanks.

Adrienne K. said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I think it totally sums up everything I was struggling with after the jezebel post went up. Would you be opposed to me linking to it on my blog? Also, point of clarification--I didn't actually write the post. Lisa over at Sociological images pulled together a bunch of images from several of my posts and wrote the text. I completely agree that the other bands weren't inspired by outkast, and I was definitely more explicit in my analysis.

-Adrienne K. (Native Appropriations)

Anonymous said...

It was much needed. Honestly I am from Bangladesh but when I came to Canada I was very shocked to see ladies dressing up in Halloween in Indian costumes or getting Henna tattoos or wearing "Bindi Sticker" without having any clue whatsoever what they mean. I felt it was not right and these ways were not how I wanted my culture to be represented but have never voiced my concerns. Thanks again for bringing this up.


Anonymous said...

Dang it! I seriously just spent the past ten minutes writing a monster reply to your post and my thoughts on this issue and now it's all gone. Anyway, maybe it's for the better, I just wanted to say thank you so much for this post. I can relate to the feeling of wanting to write about the things that matter the most but it's not as easy to get into these issues when a proper response is more of about creating a space for more questions, more nuance, even contradiction as opposed to a step by step guide like the instructions for building a bed frame. And how difficult it is to construct a response especially when you are up against the wonderfully dim and pity retorts of,'Who cares! Lighten up, fashion is just fun/superficial,' or the dreaded, 'So just cause I don't make PC choices, that makes me an evil, oppressive racist?'

I'm sadly too tuckered out from posting my original behemoth reply and losing it to blogger to try to articulate it all over again, but I just wanted to say thank you for being brave enough to extend the conversation and addressing all the naysayers who express the ol' 'Why should we be wasting time on these issues when there are people suffering from genocide/rape/slavery, etc.'

The idea that the impulse to culturally appropriate in fashion has nothing to do with the sturdy structures and institutions of racism seems incredibly delusional and I think a lot of these knee-jerk defensive responses have so much to do with most people's conception of racism--the idea that a racist is someone who is clearly morally evil and regularly says and acts in egregriously, unambiguously and intentionally evil hateful ways. And it's troubling how many people revolt agains the idea that thinking of oneself as a good person who doesn't intend to impose harm on eithers is NOT enough to eradicate racism and oppresion.

The ladies at Threadbared have done a tremendous job of continuing and challenging the conversation in these issues and these blog posts in particular I think are wonderfully revelant:

Thank you again for this post, and I'm excited to read more of your thoughts and ideas. And maybe I will even attempt cohering my own thoughts into a blog post.


Amie Eliza Pinkerton said...

Thank you so much for this post. We have a similar (if not the very same) problem here in Australia. Walk into any tourist souvenir shop here and they are full of Aboriginal themed memorabilia, almost none of which is made by or in any way profits indigenous persons, some of which is downright offensive and all the same no matter where you go despite indigenous peoples having distinctly different cultures across different regions of the country.

I don't think much of this can be seen in the fashion industry here, but certainly not due to any kind of respect. I would say it's more because we look to other countries (namely America and the UK) and so it's inevitably 'overseas' cultures we see appropriated in the name of fashion, which is by no means any better.

Michelle said...

This was a really great post. I love seeing these things discussed within the realm of fashion, because they so obviously aren't discussed enough!

I do think, though, that associating all feathered accessories with Native Americans is a bit...odd? and I'd almost say kind of racist in and of itself, though I might be off. Obviously, context (as in the outfit, what the wearer was thinking of when they put them on, and what they were labelled as, etc.) is needed, but different cultures across the world have all worn feathers in their hair at some point or another.

I might be speaking out of turn, but I just don't necessarily think "native" right away when I see feathers in hair. I guess others might, though, and then you have the problem of comparing what you think of when you look at yourself in the mirror, as opposed to the man on the street. *shrug*

Anyways, really great post, thanks for it!

Andi B. Goode said...

This is definitely an interesting area and, I'm sure, I could think of something more intelligent to say were I to bother. However, I did think of a couple of questions:
Is cultural appropriation only a problem (for lack of a better word) in regards to marginalised cultures? I'm thinking of things like wearing clothes clearly inspired by traditional costumes of European countries - like dirndl dresses, etc. The connotations are clearly different because the issues of oppression and others you mentioned don't come into it, yet it still seems to overlook the heritage of those clothes? Am I making sense? (I really want a dirndl yet I feel very strange at the idea of wearing one because my background is British/Italian...)

Also, do you think the same problems arise when wearing vintage clothes that were clearly 'inspired' (or, rather, ripped off) by Native American, or other, cultures? Are you still saying 'I think this is fine and dandy!' and, therefore, part of the problem? I only ask because you were responding to trends in current fashion.

-Andi x

hannah and landon said...

I'm so glad you posted this (I thought about you when reading the Jezebel post). I think your post expresses much better what the Jezebel post intended to share.

catherine_sr. said...

What an amazing post and I can't wait to go back and reread it! There is so much information in here to digest.

Just a quick couple of thoughts... this reminds me of the discomfort I feel when I see women of non-Chinese descent wearing a qipao. I was wondering why I feel so queasy when I realized that the qipao, at this point, symbolizes the kind of submissive sexuality that feeds into the Asian fetish, a problem many Asian women have to deal with on a day to day basis. Seeing someone -- even an Asian woman -- wearing a qipao that is deliberately cut to look garishly sexy makes me wonder why they are so comfortable feeding into stereotypes that have caused me (and many other women) so many headaches. I think, at this point, qipaos have become so sexualized by the Western gaze that many people forget they were standard day wear for women up until the 1960s and considered quite demure and conservative.

Also, in Taiwan, there is the same appropriation of Taiwanese Aboriginal culture as of Native American and Canadian cultures. In the airport here, there is even a life-sized cut-out of an Amis Aboriginal couple in full Amis dress, with the faces sliced out so you can pose behind them. It's really, really weird. On the other hand, many of the Aboriginal items sold here are actually produced by tribe members and contain designs with a good deal of cultural history behind them. You don't see as many "pastiche" costumes, like the examples posted above. I wonder if this is because a lot of Taiwanese people have Aboriginal ancestors (even if they, like me, self-identify as ethnically Chinese) and fakey stuff just wouldn't pass muster.
the renegade bean

catherine_sr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
catherine_sr. said...

I just wanted to add that your post has inspired me to launch a "reclaim the qipao" movement. I might just get some cotton qipaos -- like the ones my grandma wore -- made up. It would be interesting to see the different kind of reactions I'd get in Taiwan and in the US. Here in Taipei I'd probably be seen as an eccentric... but in the US I'd probably attract a lot of creeps, calls of "me love you long time" or the like, and people telling me how "exotic" I look in what basically amounts to a cotton pencil dress.
(Sorry for the delete and repost, it's 1:30AM and my brain has deflated for the night!)

sws said...

so good julia. thanks for this.

- steph

Hannah Mudge said...

This is such a great post! I have to admit that cultural appropriation is something I've not thought too much about before now but I do know that if I brought this post up among most people I know they would have the classic 'you're taking it too seriously!' reaction. Being in England we're more removed from the issues surrounding Native American culture so I suspect most people I know wouldn't have considered it before. Much like the debacle we had with the tortilla chip packets in Tesco which created the most massive uproar when people from across the Atlantic heard about them (see a pic here). I know it's not fashion-related but I remember seeing as discussion on LJ about it all and most Brits couldn't see what the problem was.

Anonymous said...

Lovely work Julia. We shared your article on our band website, especially cuz we can't handle other white musicians wearing headdresses on stage:

However, I do love my moccasins and hadn't even considered what they represent, for some reason...thinking about it now.


Pony said...

this is an incredibly interesting discussion you've raised, and something i can't claim to know much about - i am australian, and our indigenous cultures (as they vary wildly from tribe to tribe) do not have a superficial presence in our fashion or trends. the art world, however, and its commodification of indigenous art as an artefact and/or highly politicised social and cultural trophy, is a completely different (and problematic matter) and something i am quite passionate about. but that's for another time. this is a clothing post.

two points your raised are always interesting questions to ask yourself -- where is this item made (a big question!), and more significantly, why do i find this aesthetically pleasing? i think it's important to begin to dissect the source of our attractions to certain trends - that is, how much we internalise our own specific cultural/fashion climate and the visual pervasion of certain items (e.g. hating harem pants until they've been around for a while, wearing down opposition), and how much of that internalisation is unconscious.

the other issue - and i relate to this not so much with regards to cultural appropriation, but in relation to my vintage/antique clothing obsession - is how we represent, carry and endorse certain values on our bodies, effectively EMBODYING them, and don't realise the extent to which we are physically and visually complicit with ideals that we rationally and intellectually reject. and there is almost no way of telling where the line is between an artistic and curious approach to style and fashion, and unconsciously representing things we do not desire to, through this visual investigate process.

argggh my comment makes no sense. it's just a jumble of thoughts. in short: this is interesting. i will keep thinking about this and bring it up with my awesome, razor-sharp housemates tonight for further discussion. thank you.

K. said...

This is such a great post (so it's no wonder I'm seeing links to it all over the internet!)

One of the things I've been thinking about a lot re: Native American trends in fashion is access to authentic Native regalia and how that plays in to class politics. I have a friend who's working with a Native American community center in the pacific northwest & one of the things she's mentioned is that they have community collection of traditional regalia that kids & adults who frequent the center can borrow for ceremonies because they can't afford to purchase their own or have their own constructed for them. I'm deeply troubled by a scenario in which non-Native Americans can run out and by moderately priced to expensive knockoffs of Native American regalia when so many Native Americans are prevented from actually owning their own authentic pieces. (Which is something I've talked a little bit about here:

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU. Here via threadbared and entirely stoked to read another person out there doing a great articulate blog discussing fashion, culture, and power. It really is exhausting doing this kind of intellectual work where you put forth your thoughts, I appreciate your synthesis greatly.
I wonder if 'co-optation' should be addressed more in tandem with cultural appropriation because it seems to address ideas of power, or marginality, and what power relations change if at all when symbols are lifted? Our does this create a slippery slope of cultural ownership that slides into 'no one has exclusive rights/access to culture' or 'no one can own control meaning' debacle?

Academichic said...


I just found your site through a reader recommendation on my post from this morning, in which I addressed some of the same issues. I actually read this article on Native Appropriation on the Bitch magazine site:–-please-stop-annoying-the-fuck-out-of-me

and found it and the ensuing comments debate very interesting.

I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful response to this topic and I agree that it's all about context and about asking questions, rather than blindly following trends and 'theme parties' without every taking a step back and analyzing your sartorial choices. The questions you suggest asking oneself as excellent ones and I agree that the first step is just being more critical and aware of the media's proliferation of cultural artifacts and in what context and what vein they're incorporated into your life.

Thanks again for a great post! I will add a link to it in mine for anyone interested in further reading on this:

hannah said...

this is an incredibly astute argument. years ago, i was angry at my high school history teacher for glossing over the native american genocide part of american history. that said, i wore feathers and moccasins the halloween before last. oops? i think disney's pocohantas had something to do with white girls wanting to wear feather headdresses.

Anonymous said...

late to the party here, but brillllliant post.

Evamaria said...

Thanks for this! I'm not American, but oh, when I was a (white, blond, blue-eyed) kid, I LOVED playing 'Indian Princess'...

The issue of appropriation became immediate when I studied in New Zealand a couple of years ago. I had been there before, actually doing a project with a Maori (native New Zealanders) group, so I knew enough to buy my greenstone jewelry from a native craftsman in a native-run business and trying my best to treat it with the respect it deserves. And when I decided to get a tattoo to commemorate my love for the country I did a lot of research because tattoos have a lot of significance. Because Maori designs are so popular (for example Robbie Williams has one on his arm) there are actually special tattoos for non-Maori (called kirituhi), who have the same aestethic but none of the ritual/historical meaning of 'real' moko.

So yes, it is definitely worth thinking about it - not just in the US, but everywhere where there are native people.

Luso Mnthali said...

The idea of something being 'native' is something only a colonial culture can claim with certainty. But most of the world is actually 'native' to the place in which they reside, or are born in. so the fact that somehow we have to look at the uses of certain kinds of adornment with suspicion because they are not 'ours' is surely a product of that space only. When Indian friends (from India) gave me something to wear it was because they were proud of who they are, and wanted to share that. When I see European or Asian people wear African print clothing I think it's lovely.

I sometimes look at it as simply a synthesis of ideas about beauty and adornment. I grew up in Botswana where one of the traditional materials is cotton cloth with a print commonly known as German print, or Seshweshwe in the vernacular. Not only is this material popular in Botswana, but also throughout South Africa, where 'Shweshwe has been used in high end fashion, by white and black designers, and is worn everywhere from the opening of Parliament, to weddings, and to funerals. The humble shweshwe's origins are most likely German - hence the nickname. But the fact that everyone recognises that it has become part of the fabric of everyday life, to my mind makes this part of Africa pretty special in that regard. When I see white girls with braids (closely packed, long braids) and Shweshwe dresses, or wearing a headwrap, it makes me quite happy. Although I've only ever seen them in full regalia on certain days when they want to stand out as special or unique. or they're in a play. But more power to them. Meanwhile, they could be of German descent, and actually be wearing something that someone from their original culture brought with them to Africa.

John said...

Thanks for a non knee-jerk look at the subject. I think it's a major mistake for people to confuse issues of culture, religion, and race as automatically being the same thing (especially since "racial group" is a scientific myth). That's easy to do if you come from a background for which these three things always or almost always are equated with each other. It might help to realize that there are a lot of people in the world for whom their 'race' exists in more than one culture, and subscribes to more than one religion - religions that exist in more than one culture and have a diverse racial component; and cultures that contain more than one religion and a heterogenous racial component.

People also often mistakingly attribute to racism (having racial prejudices) or prejudices against cultures or religions, two other trends in modern society: 1) Simply not acknowledging the importance of having a uniform/isolated/homogenous race, religion, and/or culture or 2) Actively being opposed for moral reason, to there being uniform/isolated/homogenous race, cultures, or religions.

nicolette said...

i just linked this on thecherryblossomgirl's latest post. if you haven't seen it yet, go look.

Anonymous said...

I'm just a little confused of what it is I'm supposed to wear exactly as a "white privileged person"... I can't wear feather jewelry or moccasins clearly because that is racist again Native Americans... I can't wear wrap dresses or skirts because that would be stealing from Indian saris and other wrapped garments like those of pacific islanders... I can't wear boots because they might be inspired by Inuits wrapping skins around their legs to keep warm... Vintage dresses are offensive because they represent a more passive time for females... Wearing jeans is offensive because they started with disenfranchised factory workers, which I am not... a cotton long-sleeve button front is adopting a style from French and English designs of which I am neither... I guess I'll just go naked so I don't offend anyone with my fashion choices...

I'm wondering why you chose to judge others' fashion choices... you promote asking questions about where these articles of clothing come from but then you boast you bought feather earrings at a thrift store without knowing their origin... if you really cared about this wouldn't you have abstained from the great bargain and thought more carefully about your choices? As for grouping all hipsters together in a category of their own, you are, in fact, stereotyping an entire group of people... hipsters can come from any socio-economic class and racial background and lumping them all into the same group without taking the time to analyze their motives is just as inappropriate as judging any other group as a whole...

think twice before picking on a group you don't understand... you're just spewing more hate speech...

I agree that a skinny, blonde, white girl walking around naked with a Native American headdress is offensive and wearing a complete stereotype halloween costume is offensive but wearing one piece of jewelry that you find visually appealing or one pair of shoes you find comfortable does not make you a racist...

Anonymous said...

This post was going so well until the last commenter missed the point entirely. Never mind racism and cultural appropriation - stop oppressing the hipsters!

Anonymous said...

I was not saying that hipsters are being oppressed by any means because clearly they are not. I was merely commenting that lumping an entire group of people into the same insensitive category because some of those people chose to wear inappropriate clothing is stereotyping. I consider myself to be somewhat of a hipster, but by no means an extremist, and I would never were something as sacred as a native american headdress. I was just pointing out that I find it absurd that this author chooses to harp on the native americans being abused but puts no thought into the fact that every single style of clothing humans have worn has spawned from the appropriation of some culture or another and that native americans are just the newest in a long line...

G said...


She has put thought into the fact that every garment has cultural origins. She in fact has outlined, with the feather earring* example, how to consider the possibility that it's cultural appropriation. You appear to just be whinging because you have to think about it.

*the pictured feather earrings seem a poor illustration to me, but that's probably because I recognize the feathers as being from a bird that's not native to the Americas and think the style doesn't look N.A. at all. I've got to agree with Michelle way up the comments list about sticking feathers on things not being a solely Native American thing to do. (This does not excuse people from the responsibility of considering if a feathered object is being used in an offensive, cultural appropriation sort of way.)

Kat Vin Kat said...

Im french, and I just discovered this controversial subject from my far away country.
I took a fashion photograph with a girl smoking with a hipster headdress.

HOOOW what my feeling when I saw a comment on a blog with my picture, saying that it was so racist.
I called this "Street squaw". I changed the name.

Fuck, I didnt understand all the meaning of this, and I asked to a native indian girl to explain me all this, and I look to different blogs to understand more. And now, Im a little chocked because there is not a lot of subjects about your genocide in the information tv, we talk a lot about the shoah, but rarely about your tragedy.

I'm sad because it creates anger, and stigmatisation on your past... But try to understand the simple beauty of objects, the fact that people loves hipster headdress isn't the most unfair in the story. That bad thing is that there's too much ignorance about your culture.

Respect anyway.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Danielle said...

Been circling around the internet reading all about and around this subject all weekend and found myself, here! Good post, glad to read your thoughts on the subject at length.

I'm trying to suss out possible answers to the question you bring up "*why do you like this aesthetic?" - but more towards the angle, "*why do fashion designers in particular so often resort to appropriation?" Anyway, I think there is a pattern somewhere there and perhaps a post. But I'm not that well educated on this stuff so it will take me a while.

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"undeniably racist things like blackface will come back and rear their ugly heads in the pages of vogue even in our supposed "post-racial" era."

Really? How on earth do you arrive at that assumption? Seems very paranoid to me.

Many of your points have merit, I think, but I had trouble with the flow, lack of punctuation and grammar, so some of it was lost. Just my two cents.

Maybe it's overly PC, or unhip, to criticize this?

To add to your argument, from what I can glean, I remember a Burning Man fundraiser here in Oakland which was called "Go Native", in which guests were encouraged to dress in American Indian garb to gain entry to the party. I'm assuming their camp at BM was similarly themed. The party was shut down by ACTUAL Ohlone Indians in headdress, who wrangled all the hipsters out of the club, sat them down outside, and lectured them on the offense they took toward their event. Those kids were 'schooled' and good.

But I wonder if the problem here lies in lack of education, lack of sensitivity, or simply that the crimes of White people are more easily lost to this generation due to simple TIME? I suspect it's a blend of issues, like anything.

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Scott, do an image search on Google for "vogue blackface." Go on, we'll wait... that you've been reminded that, in 2009, French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld styled a shoot of Dutch model Lara Stone by Steven Klein, in which Stone appeared in blackface, do you still think Julia was being "very paranoid?" Or was she talking about pernicious shit that actually happened in our supposed "post-racial" era?

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Anonymous said... should i not wear feathered earrings anymore? since you never answered those questions.

Angelica Paige said...

This sort of over-the-top "sensitivity" is white paranoid guilt, equal, though opposite, to the ignorant racism the writer claims on others in order to justify sneering down her nose at the other side. Get over yourself and get over girls looking better in moccasins than you do, even if they are irredeemably stupid. This, at its core, is a rant about who
is better than who and why. This bull on either side won't stop until we are free to culturally merge and embrace what we want how we want. Appropriation is good. We just need to understand it better and embrace it in positivity and education.

Sure, there is an issue here, and not just about race and culture, but about mindless consumerism as well, but one cannot finger wag, shame, and bully others into the guilty white mind frame, policing political correctness and what earrings to wear, how, and why. Doesn't the capitalist patriarchy do enough of that for us already? Despite what I guess is the laid back approach of never capitalizing when one should, this article is rather extremist in ways that turn off not only those sought to be changed by the author, but those like myself who would otherwise claim to be a great example of the socially disenfranchised and underminded young Americans- save that I'm white, which, I suppose makes my dissent invalid, huh??

This article is the antithesis of all it claims to abhor. It doesn't take much reasoning to realize.

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This post was going so well until someone dared to disagree and step outside the groupthink.

Rachael said...

I make it my policy not to wear anything outside of my "generic Canadian" culture unless I know the context behind it/have explicit permission (say, if you're required to wear a certain thing at an event). It's so incredibly easy to find something that works for you without upsetting people, why would you bother? One thing that really bothers me is tattoos that take language or symbols completely out of context. That stuff stays with you for life.

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I think you should wear fashion you like. Simple as that. Every single piece of clothing has a cultural past behind it. In delicate cases like a white girl wearing a dreamcatcher, well, it is a chance for the girl to learn about the native american culture, be aware of it, respect it. You are engaging in historical guilt because native americans were almost erradicated in your country. But let me explain myself with an example from my personal life. I am half spanish, half aztec. My skin has a yellow-brown tone. You could say that half my ancestors killed and enslaved the other for two centuries. But here in Mexico we know lots about both our cultures, we are proud of our past and we embrace it. No matter the color of your skin, you can wear clothes made (or in the style of) aztecs, mayans, tarahumaras, zapotecas. etc. We wear them knowingly and we've never considered it to be offensive. The real problem, here too, is the living conditions to which many indigenous groups have been relegated. The real solution is to get involved!

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Great post. What amazes me is this is the only website I could quickly see that was relevant to this issue when I googled "Minnetonka controversy" - the rest of the links on the first page were about Target stealing their designs, or ads for Minnetonka shoes. I guess they have a good PR group. I admire that they are a small business with a long history that creates (in my opinion) good quality items in the US, but that history they have seems very based in the boom in American folk art, and a lot of American folk art involved culturally appropriating Native Americans. You'd think someone would be talking about that. I had hoped that they'd say they were giving money to the people whose symbols they copied at the very least, but I didn't see anything like that.

Cultural appropriation is a difficult issue, because every culture has always taken things from other groups, and then twisted them into something of their own - sometimes this has created very beautiful things. But taking cultural aspects from groups that have very little power over how their image is portrayed, or even how their people are treated, and then using those aspects for your own enjoyment can get very nasty very quickly.

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I don't disagree with anything you say. I feel compelled to say in regard to your "why do you like that particular aesthetic?" comment, why can't a person legitimately like feathered things because they think birds are pretty and/or want to attempt to approximate some sense of "freedom" they think birds have. There are also many other cultures in the world that use feathers as decoration besides indigenous americans. So... a person's motivation is not, nor has to be inherently racist. That being said, I would certainly not make the same argument for a headdress or breastplate or something else which is.

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