If you haven’t already, check out the short piece I wrote for the political magazine, The American Prospect. It’s called, “What’s in a Name?” and it’s about the legal dimensions of cultural appropriation, specifically with regard to the Urban Outfitters/Navajo Nation trademark situation that emerged last month. I’ve been told that the piece is getting a lot of readers – and I’ve been invited to write more pieces for them in the future. Will let you know!
Category Archives: FASHIONING RACE
Alondra Nelson, author of the much-anticipated book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press 2011) talks to me about The Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program, one of the organization’s many community programs. Nelson’s book, which Henry Louis Gates calls “a revelation” and Evelynn Hammonds describes as “indispensable” for understanding “how healthcare and citizenship have become so intertwined,” deftly recovers a lesser-known aspect of the BPP: its broader struggles for social justice through health activism.
On a more personal note, I’m utterly thrilled to be introducing Threadbared readers to Alondra Nelson! She’s an intellectual powerhouse of the first order whose research stands as far and away some of the most exciting and relevant stuff I’ve encountered in critical race and gender studies in some time. In addition to her intellectual capaciousness (follow her on Twitter to see what I mean!), she is unsparingly generous in her willingness to share knowledge, support, and tips for the best mascara a drugstore budget can buy. And she’s agreed to sign copies of her book which 3 (three!) lucky readers will win – keep reading to find out how!
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MP: Alondra, as you know I’ve been dying to talk to you about this photo of the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program by Stephen Shames. It’s one of my favorite fashion photos because it captures so well what I can only describe as a state of sartorial joy – that happy feeling I get sometimes when I’m wearing a favorite outfit or trying on new clothes (even if only new to me). I mean, this kid is seriously feeling his look and himself – and I absolutely love it! What are your reactions to this photo?
AN: This Shames photograph is striking and wonderful. There is definitely “sartorial joy” there. And, pure unadulterated happiness, too! The boy in the photo—his smile, his pose, his evident pride—conveys the thrill I think we’ve all felt during some especially successful shopping venture at a sample sale, thrift shop or department store. We unfortunately learn to dim our delight as we get older. This image is a welcome reminder to savor life’s little pleasures.
The photo also prompts a less cheery reading. The boy is wearing many layers of clothes and here he is adding yet another layer. He’s stocking up. Maybe he is in great need of clothing. Perhaps his enthusiasm is not the thrill of consumption, but the satisfaction of having this very basic need met.
The Black Panther Party’s 1966 founding manifesto stated “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Helping disadvantaged communities to meet these needs was one of the activists’ main goals. To do this, the Party established a wide array of community service or “survival” initiatives, including the People’s Free Clothing Program depicted here.
Then there are the images within the picture; the images on the wall. There is the iconic poster of Huey Newton seated in a wicker chair brandishing both a sword and a rifle. There are several pieces of art that appear to be the work of Emory Douglas, the Party’s Minister of Culture. There’s also a familiar portrait of Eldridge Cleaver floating just above the boy’s head. This “gallery” links the boy’s sartorial joy and practical needs to the Black Panthers’ style and their politics.
MP: I love that. It really articulates my sense of the significance of the Black Panther Party’s health-based programs, which I think go beyond physical survival. That Eldridge Cleaver’s iconic image is part of this scene of sartorial joy really suggests to me that the BPP understood the political and psychic significance of clothing, that “health activism” for the BPP had much broader implications than physical health. Can you elaborate on this?
AN: Yes, that’s absolutely right. The Party appreciated that clothing could be both a basic need and a form of self-expression.
Also, the Black Panthers had a broad and politicized understanding of well-being that I describe as “social health.” Social health was their vision of the good society. The Party drew a connection between the physical health of individuals and social conditions in the U.S. They believed that achieving healthy bodies and communities required a just and equitable society.
The Black Panthers took a similarly holistic approach with their health activities. They provided basic health care services at their People’s Free Medical Clinics, for example. At these clinics one could also get free groceries or clothing, or advice on how to deal with a difficult landlord or help finding a job. For the Panthers, all of these issues were interconnected.
MP: Do you think it’d be fair to say that in the popular imaginary, it isn’t the group’s community programs for which they’re best remembered but their distinctive look? I’m thinking about the circulation and consumption of the BPP’s fashion practices and styles (e.g., Afros, berets, and military jackets) today in fashion magazines (under the sign of “radical chic”) and in the Internet (one blogger offers advice on how to “recreate the Panther look”). How important was the distinctive look of the BPP to its political mission and legacy then and now?
AN: The Black Panther Party emerged during a golden age of mass media: at a time when artists like John Lennon and Yoko Ono were pioneering some of the earliest music videos, when Marshall McLuhan was proclaiming the “medium” as “the message,” and when racially stereotypical television shows such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (which ran in syndication until the late 1960s) were giving way to integrated dramas like “The Mod Squad” and “Star Trek” (the latter of which was the setting for American TV’s first interracial kiss). Media mattered; image mattered.
Given this context, the fact that the Black Panthers were not only bold, but also beautiful, definitely contributed to their association with style in the popular imagination up to today. And, what the Shames photo of the boy captures so well is the fact that the Party’s image and its mission could overlap.
At the same time, we shouldn’t let our collective memory of the Party be so preoccupied with its imagery that we lose site of the activists’ urgent critique of racial and economic inequality and their efforts to imagine a better society. As Angela Davis stressed in her stirring 1994 article “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia” (a MUST read!), we shouldn’t reduce a “politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.”
MP: Stephen Shames, the photographer responsible for the above photo, is also responsible for many of the photographs that serve as visual references for “radical chic”. Can you talk about his relationship to and role in the BPP?
AN: Because of his evocative photographs, Shames has been one of the most important historians of the BPP. Many familiar, iconic images of the Party reflect Shames’ unique vision and talents. He also photographed aspects of the BPP’s work and organizational culture that are less well-known, whether it was decpicting hundreds of bags of groceries spread out like a lawn in an Oakland park or capturing blood being drawn from a child’s finger during at one of the Panthers’ sickle cell anemia screening programs. I am honored that he allowed me to use one of his photographs for the cover of Body and Soul.
MP: Thanks, Alondra! I can’t wait to read the book!
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Body and Soul will be available for purchase on November 1 but you can claim your FREE copy before then! In the comments section below, tell us about your favorite book/film/image of the Black Panther Party to win one of the three autographed copies of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. The drawing will take place one week from today on Monday, October 24.
Last Thursday, Crystal Renn, the model who recently appeared in a Vogue Japan spread with her eyes taped in ways that were suggestive of an old theater makeup trick meant to make white actors look “Asian,” offered an explanation and defense of the cosmetic practice. Tape, it should be noted, is only one of many tools in the arsenal of this particular form of racial drag, also known as yellowfacing – a practice that is literally older than America. Contrary to popular headlines suggesting that “yellowface is the new blackface,” there is nothing new or novel about yellowfacing. One of the earliest incidences of yellowfacing in the U.S. occurred in 1767 when Arthur Murphy presented his play The Orphan of China in Philadelphia.
What interests me about this moment of racial drag or “transformation,” as Renn’s called it, are the reactions to it and her own explanation of the decision to tape her eyes. In last week’s published conversation with Jezebel editor Jenna Sauers, Renn insists that she “wasn’t trying To ‘look Asian’ in that eye tape shoot”. And I wanted to believe her. I have great respect for Sauers. Her writing has always displayed a great deal of thoughtfulness and acuity and she’s been a generous supporter of Threadbared for a long time. For all these reasons, I approached Sauers’ conversation with Renn as a generous reader, willing to be convinced. After all, Sauers initially assumed Renn was yellowfacing too. If she could be surprised with Renn’s explanation, I thought I might be too.
Here’s how Renn explains the eye-taping:
- In a way you become something else.
- No, it tends to be when there’s more makeup and drama. And the point is transformation.
- To transform is the greatest part of my work. It’s the thing that makes me the happiest. And to be able to try to do as many looks as I can and to show as many faces as I can, it’s exciting to me . . . I’ve had moles painted on my face. I’ve had freckles painted on.
- I become something else.
- We didn’t even think about [race] on the shoot. I’m the one who suggested it, and it didn’t even cross my mind. It’s something that I regularly ask makeup artists, you know, if it will bring something more to the character. Offer a different face.
- As the model, as somebody who thrives on the transformation, I am beyond thrilled to do stories where they change my gender, where they take me and make me something completely different.
What is so striking about Renn’s explanation is its ambiguity. She never says what look she was going for – just that she intended to become “something else.” This intangible “something” that has more “drama”, more “character” , and is so “exciting” is, for Renn, not racially specific. It is instead a generalized exotica, an experience of vague sensuousness. But do racist acts require intentionality? And what are the implications of Renn’s deracialization of a practice that was so clearly racist to so many people?
“Eating the Other”
Renn’s understanding of this “transformation” is reflective of a broader cultural logic in the mainstream fashion industry that has historically viewed and engaged with racial difference as a depoliticized and dehistoricized aesthetic. Racial difference, evacuated of its history and politics, becomes a set of design elements and sartorial flourishes (a kente pattern here, a frog closure there, a Native headdress on the weekend – why not?) that are absent of meaning and context. Fashion’s depoliticization of ethnicity and race rely on and reproduce what Nirmal Puwar calls “the amnesia of celebration.”
The problem is that the violent racist abuse meted out to Asian women who have worn these items has no place in the recent donning of these items. . . “Do you remember when you thought we were ugly and disgusting when we wore these items?”
The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick of racial drag – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.
This desire for transformation through the Other is not unique to fashion; it is connected to a much longer history of what Black feminist scholar bell hooks (always in lower case) calls “imperialist nostalgia”: the longing of whites to inhabit, if only for a time, the world of the Other. Bodily transcendence through sartorial and cosmetic play is enacted by the consumption of otherness – a “courageous consumption,” in hooks’ words – because it is about “conquering the fear [of racial difference] and acknowledging power. It is by eating the Other,” hooks explains, “that one asserts power and privilege.”
But Renn wasn’t “even think[ing] about [race] on the shoot . . . it didn’t even cross [her] mind.”
Here, I want to return to my earlier question: do racist acts require intentionality? The obvious answer is no. A well-intentioned compliment about how well I speak English or a clumsy flirtation that begins with a deep bow like I’m the Dalai Lama (both have happened to me) are meant to be friendly gestures that close the gap of racial difference. (“Don’t worry – I’m culturally sensitive.”) Yet, these examples are clearly born of racist ideologies about what “real” Americans look like and what are “real” Asian cultural practices. Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies (the U.S. context is not exempt but neither is it exceptional) that everyday racism, the kind of racism that is experienced in civic life (through social relationships, media, interpersonal workplace dynamics, etc.) is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it’s an act of conscience.
But I think Renn’s (mis)understanding about eye-taping and intentionality is suggestive of something more than unconscious racism. I think that Renn’s explanation exemplifies how race is understood in this “post-racial” historical moment. What does racial discourse sound like in the age of post-racism? Well, I think it sounds like Renn’s explanation. This isn’t to single out Renn for indictment; instead, my point is to suggest that Renn’s explanation is an example of a post-racial narrative in which race is simultaneously articulated through and disavowed by discourses of class, culture, patriotism, national security, talent, and, in the case of fashion, creative license. Renn’s transformation is conditioned by its proximation to racial otherness and yet the language of creative license (Renn says: “To transform is the greatest part of my work.”) denies race as a driving and organizing factor in this transformation, it denies both her racial privilege as well as the eye-taping technique as a common cultural practice of racism. This kind of post-racial consumption of race in which the historical violence of racial difference makes no difference at all denies the ongoing reality of racism in the age of postracism. It is conditioned by the many privileges of whiteness (first and foremost among these privileges, a racially unmarked body). Recall Puwar’s incisive observation – which I’ve quoted numerous times on Threadbared – “It is precisely because white female bodies occupy the universal empty point which remains racially unmarked that they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized female bodies.”
We see the discourse of postracism also in Renn’s assertion that she is “not 100% morally okay with [blackface shoots] — I would feel that I’m taking a job from one of them. I would feel that I’m taking a job from a black girl who deserved it.” Renn’s sensitivity towards the need for more diversity in the modeling industry is not surprising. She has been a vocal proponent of size diversity among models (for a time, she was one of the most successful plus-size models) and has spoken openly about her own struggles with eating disorders and the pressures that come with the constant scrutiny of young women’s bodies in the media.
Her statement that she would never engage in a blackface shoot does two things: First, it elides the issue at hand (yellowfacing) for what seems to be for Renn a more real and authentic act of racism, blackfacing. In so doing, her statement suggests that anti-black racism is the only authentic form of racism worth talking or caring about. Second, it suggests that practices of yellowfacing and blackfacing (like, redfacing and brownfacing) take modeling jobs away from nonwhite models. This logic assumes that these acts of racial drag are meant to represent an actual racial body. Let me be clear: yellowfacing is not a practice of racial substitution, of a white model in place of an Asian model. Photographers, magazines, and designers know Asian models exist and know how to hire them. But they don’t hire them for these jobs because yellowfacing does not intend for audiences to believe that the body in view is actually Asian.
I’ve become really impatient with responses to racist practices of racial drag that involve comments like: “Why didn’t they just hire a Black/Asian/Latina/Native model?” (Yes, I believe there are anti-racist kinds of racial drag.) This question glosses over the actual operations of yellowfacing, blackfacing, etc. which is not about Asianness or Blackness but about Whiteness. It is about consuming Otherness, it’s about making racial difference commodifiable and palatable through whiteness, it’s about reproducing and securing white privilege. To quote hooks again, “eating the other” – hooks’ term for the consumption of difference – offers:
A new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream while culture.
NB: It’s unclear to me who is actually to blame for Renn’s eye-taping. She’s insisted that it was solely her idea but editor-in-chief of Vogue Japan Anna Dello Russo has also taken credit for the idea. I asked Ashley Mears, a former model and now sociology professor at Boston University whose book about the political economies of the modeling industry called Pricing Beauty is due out this month from the University of California Press if Renn might be falling on her sword for Dello Russo. According to Mears, it’s plausible that Renn had some creative input. As she explained, “models tend to have very little input in the terms of their work or in how their images are crafted or manipulated. However, at the higher levels of the industry where Renn is working, in which stylists and models work with each other repeatedly on high-end productions, there is a greater degree of collaboration with models, especially if she takes initiative to be involved.”
Yesterday, the Guardian ran a really interesting story about the Lo-Lifes, a Brooklyn-based gang of Black and Latino young men that emerged in the late 1980s. Unlike previous Guardian articles which sensationalized the incongruity of non-White and poor men wearing the emblems of social and financial affluence, this article (written by John McDonnell) emphasizes the ideological and aspirational convergences of the Lo-Lifes and Ralph Lauren (the man and the company). This is something I discussed in my previous post on Mexican American preppies.
I only wish that McDonnell would have offered some evidence that the Lo-Lifes are, in fact, a gang. And indeed this evidence is not hard to come by since some of the more outre members discuss and display their lengthy rap sheets quite proudly. Without any kind of substantiation, though, the article suggests that it’s self-evident that any/all groups of non-White poor men constitute a “gang.” But the Lo-Lifes are more than a gang too; they’re a clique, a crew, and a fellowship of brothers. They’re also culture jammers.
In my very brief and admittedly very preliminary research on the Lo-Lifes, I found this trailer of a documentary – which, by all accounts is still under production. What’s so interesting about them is not just that they organize their personal and social identities around the material and corporeal sign of Ralph Lauren but why they do.
The trailer juxtaposes the life history and fantastic aspirations of Ralph Lauren (né Ralph Lifshitz, “a poor kid from the Bronx” who would later come to helm a corporate empire of staggering symbolic and financial proportions) with the emergence of the Lo-Lifes, a group of Brooklyn-based youth whose “goal was accumulation by any means necessary, of POLO clothes and accessories.” For both Lauren and the Lo-Lifes, their relationships to fashion are informed, guided by, and reflect back on the American Dream of social and economic mobility – but with an important racial difference.
While Lauren’s white skin and name change enabled him to possess the American Dream, the Lo-Lifes’ social and economic marginalization required them to take it “by any means necessary.” The appropriation of this phrase, made famous by Malcolm X, is not accidental. The Lo-Lifes, as the trailer shows, are self-consciously puncturing the racial and economic borders of preppy Americana (with all the presumptions and entitlements of WASPy youth culture it entails). In wearing POLO, they create a counter-culture, body, and imaginary of preppihood. (The audio track on the trailer begins with Thirstin Howl III rapping, “Yo, what’s my nationality? Polo-rican!” His intertwining of consumerism and nationalism suggests that this new nationality is not created out of whole cloth but is a polyracial refabrication of American identity.)
As culture jammers, the Lo-Lifes intervene on U.S. consumer capitalism (exemplified by Ralph Lauren POLO) using a subversive mode of anti-consumerism, but without a corresponding philosophy of anti-accumulation. Stolen luxury fashion is, for the Lo-Lifes, both a necessity (for one’s construction of an authentic self as a Lo-Life) as well as a badge of honor. This badge, ironically, denotes their racial exclusion from the American Dream and their claims to it. Indeed, the complex relationship between race, preppy fashion, and American identity is nowhere more skillfully interpreted and negotiated than by the Lo-Lifes themselves. Note that an early Lo-Life crew called themselves POLO USA, in which USA stands not (only) for the United States of America but (also) for United Shoplifters Association. What this semiotic slippage slips in is a new meaning of USA that includes theft as a central part of its national identity.
Fi Lo: “We have stole so much shit in our lifetime . . . this is for Ralph Lauren!”
Thirstin Howl III: “Ralphie don’t know, even though he ain’t on our team, we a motherfucking team our motherfucking selves. We still Lo-ed out.”
Monday’s article in The Guardian titled, “The Mexican Fans Ralph Lauren Could Do Without” by Sarah Ditum is mostly a rehash of an earlier Guardian article called, “Mexico: Youth Follows Drug Barons’ Fashion with Ralph Lauren Polo Shirts” by Jo Tuckman. Both begin with a photograph of alleged drug trafficker Edgar Valdez Villareal – wearing a green Ralph Lauren Polo shirt – being escorted by armed Mexican federal officers dressed in riot gear.
The incongruity of this “Mexican outlaw” donning the symbol of American prep leads Ditum to conclude: “sometimes, the market gets away from the marketers.”
The company has spent nearly 50 years defining and refining preppiness. Its website is full of vomtastic talk of “American style” and “inviting people to take part in our dream”; the advertising is full of clean-cut boys starring in what could be a burlesque versions of The Great Gatsby. And then it turns out that some of the biggest fans of the label aren’t gilded Wasp youths after all, but thick-set and stubbly Mexican drug dealers.
It should be noted right away that neither Ditum nor Tuckman offer statements by any representative of RLP on this matter. So their concerns for the company’s reputation and sales seem to be their own. But what is their concern?
For Ditum, it is the strange coupling of “thick-set and stubbly Mexican drug dealers” and the material symbols of “American style.” But Villareal is American, born and raised in Laredo, Texas. That this American should covet the “American style” of RLP and the aspirational social and economic values it symbolizes and secures is hardly noteworthy. Socioeconomic climbing is the promise at the heart of the American Dream. For Ditum, though,Villareal’s Americanness is not legible because his brown body is an inappropriate representative of the U.S. national body (which she describes in the racial terms of “gilded WASP”). Here, “thick-set and stubbly drug dealers” is code for “Mexican”. It is the collapsing together of his social, economic, and physical attributes that forecloses his Mexican identity for Ditum, in spite of the fact that he’s actually American (an American whose history in the U.S. predates the histories of most EuroAmericans).
Ditum’s criminalization of Mexicans is also evidenced in this alarmist statement about the harm Mexican consumers might have on the status and sales of RLP:
This is the sort of success a label would happily do without: sure, the brand is popular, but with people who’ve got no cachet to share, and worst of all, no compunction about shopping for fakes instead of the real thing – both cannibalising sales, and turning off those carefully nurtured core customers.
Again, knowing a little history helps. The Ralph Lauren Polo is itself a knock-off of Rene Lacoste’s polo shirt. Lacoste, a French (not American) 7-time Grand Slam tennis champion, wore the polo shirt for the first time in the 1926 U.S. Open championship and began mass-producing it in the 1930s—40 years before Lauren created his polo. Further, “Ralph Lauren” himself is not a gilded WASP. Born Ralph Lifshitz to Jewish immigrant parents, he anglicized his name to avoid schoolyard bullying. As he once told Oprah, “My given name has the word shit in it. When I was a kid, the other kids would make a lot of fun of me. It was a tough name. That’s why I decided to change it.” The “counterfeit” (and I use that term without any pejorative connotations) is not “foreign” to but rather embedded within the very history of American prep.
While Ditum’s assumption that Villareal is Mexican is a racist one, it’s supported by dominant discourses about the “drug war” in Mexico which tend to obscure the massive role the U.S. has played in this “war”. The U.S. government via the Merida Initiative (signed in 2007 by George W. Bush) has funneled more than $1.5 billion into this “war,” in the form of US military equipment and training. Moreover, drug trafficking is not limited within the Mexican borders. U.S. drug consumption is a multimillion dollar business—one that involves not only American drug users and dealers but also corrupt U.S. bankers and businesses (some of whom are no doubt of the “gilded WASP” set) to launder drug money. (By the way, the criminalization of drug use that enables the underground economy of drug trafficking to flourish unregulated is a social and legal policy that is opposed by the majority of Mexicans—as demonstrated by recent protests in Mexico City.)
Still, it’s curious to me that Ditum finds criminality and preppiness to be at odds with one another. What does she think the bankers responsible for the 2007 subprime crisis that brought the U.S. to its economic knees wear in their leisure time?
This is just one of a series of images from Shadi Ghadirian’s art project, “Qajar” which explores, as she puts it, “the duality and contradiction of life.” Each of the photographs features “models, chosen among close family and friends . . . wearing clothes from the turn of the 20th century and . . . carrying objects, mostly smuggled, into contemporary Iran.” A fuller description of the project is published at Women in Photography.
All of the images are striking in the way that they each enact a kind of time travel (women wearing turn of the 20th century clothes carrying a boombox or a Pepsi can, etc.). Simultaneously, these images of time-traveling Iranian women trouble the civilizationalist discourses about Muslim dress as the material register of an anti-feminist and unmodern culture in which women are physically, politically, and socially immobilized. I can’t include all of the photos here so please do check out Ghadirian’s website to see the full project.
Last Thursday, Reuters released photographs from the United States’ extra-territorial raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, which show “three dead men lying in pools of blood, but no weapons.” (Reuters purchased these photographs from a Pakistani security official, who entered the compound about an hour after the US assault.) Reuters described the three deceased men as “dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.”
On Twitter, Pakistan-based journalist Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointedly asks, “Why are Muslims always in ‘garb’ and never in ‘clothes’?” In a related inquiry, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi (@southsouth) has been critical of The Daily Show’s graphics following Osama bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing, featuring photographs of bin Laden’s head imposed upon a mosque, and another of bin Laden caption, “Bye Bye Beardie.”
Our theoretical and historical provocation (for this blog, at least) is thus to engage the question of clothing the “terrifying Muslim.” For example, we could easily observe that terms such as “garb” emphasize a civilizational distancing or confusion (one involving both temporal and spatial dimensions). Where naming these clothes as “garb” seems to act as “merely” an empirical description, the assessment of subjects and their clothing practices may coincide with, or become complicit with, colonial schema. ( Mirza (@mirza9) and Gharavi (@southsouth) had an amazing, satirical exchange about the usage of “garb” that underlined so well its civilizational thinking. Highlights include Mirza’s “American business-casual garb for me today!” and South/South’s “Clothes might make the man, but garb makes the Muslim man.”) Related to this set of concerns, I’ve written here about the epidermalization of clothing and sartorial classification as a weapon of war.
This time, I thought I would turn to my brilliant colleague Junaid Rana. Rana is an associate professor in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose scholarship addresses the confluence of racism with concepts of “illegality,” especially through transnational movements of labor and war. He is also the author of the new (and sure to be important) book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, out on Duke University Press in the next few weeks. You can find out more about the book (and become a fan) here!
MIMI: In your new book Terrifying Muslims, you argue that racism and the criminalization of the Muslim body enacts the global war on terror in everyday life. You also incorporate a sartorial dimension into your analyses about the use of surveillance and racial boundary-making in relation to the Muslim body (drawing upon feminist theorists such as Sara Ahmed, one of my intellectual crushes). Can you tell us about your arguments about how clothing does matter?
JUNAID: It’s a fairly straightforward argument, although I’m sure it will be received with some controversy. The basic argument is about connecting Islamophobia to racism. Islamophobia is often seen as religious discrimination. And racism is usually thought of in terms of the body and particular kinds of genetic traits and phenotypic difference – that is, skin color, hair, eyes, etc. But as the scholarship on racism has shown, such biological determinism is almost always tied to culture. In the second chapter of the book I have an extensive argument about how racism and the genealogy of the race-concept is intimately tied to Islam and Muslims.
As for the sartorial elements, it’s an extension of the general approach in the book that combines material and cultural analysis. I look for my theoretical inspiration from a wide variety of intellectual approaches. I am without a doubt deeply indebted to the work of feminist theorists, who have in my mind always been at the cutting edge of critical race analysis. For example, many of my arguments in the book draw from a number of feminist theorists, including Sara Ahmed and Linda Alcoff, who for some time have talked about how clothes are a material register for the intersection of race and gender. The surface of the body is read by its accoutrements. It’s a certain kind of object analysis that is always already happening. How the body is fashioned with coverings provides for a particular cultural reading based on meanings attributed and related back to the body. Without a doubt, we size up people all the time by how they dress. We make judgments by what we infer from clothing – and this has much to do with a process of racializing and gendering, meaning we take cultural artifacts such as customs and costumes to have a particular naturalized and essentialized meaning that is centered on the body as a material and cultural archive. But this is also a choice and a political stance.
Not all clothing will have as much meaning as others. For some this choice is a mistake, and others a risk. (Remember when it was dangerous for Rachael Ray to wear a kefiyyah?) Culture and clothing, then, is a way to racialize and establish social boundaries of who belongs here and who doesn’t. Race in the context of Islam and the Muslim body is understood as a religious belief in which its adherents are thought of as inherently different. So I’m not saying this always happens, it’s a very specific process of racialization that imagines a group of people as essentialized in particular ways. You can find this in what people say and do all of the time. And that’s what I try to unravel in depth in the book.
In this particular moment Islamic clothing and bodily fashioning along with comportment imputes all kinds of meaning to Muslim bodies. Research has shown that veiled women [and girls] in the US are disproportionately endangered as threats to what I would call the white supremacist social order. Men are also targeted because of Islamic dress and facial hair as appearing Muslim-like. Louise Cainker’s study in post-9/11 Chicago with Arab Americans called Homeland Insecurity showed that veiled Muslim women were often targeted for harassment and racial violence. What she calls cultural sniping is a response to a gendered nationalism in which women are considered the bearers and reproducers of culture. So an attack on Islam in the publics of the US, is more easily a violent attack on Muslim women. Others have shown similar things in New York and San Francisco. In my book, I talk about how Islamic dress becomes a material register to discipline bodies into an imperial racial order. In the last chapter of the book I talk about how this comes together particularly in two vignettes of women who face forms of racial boundary making used to oppress them, and as a source of refusal of such dominance through the defiance of racialized and gendered stereotypes.
As for the pictures just released by Reuters, first it should be acknowledged what the three men are actually wearing. The website states the pictures “show two men dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.” Two sentences later the report says: “none of the men looked like bin Laden.” What on earth does this mean? They didn’t look Arab? They weren’t Muslim enough? Terrorist? Evil? It’s not clear. The man apparently in a t-shirt is wearing an undershirt commonly worn under the “traditional Pakistani garb” referred to more commonly known as shalwar kameez. A unisex dress, the shalwar refers to the loose pants, and the kameez is a long shirt some of your readers might recognize as related to the chemise. Given that the photos crop the bodies of the dead mean from the waist up I’m not entirely sure how Reuters knows what they are wearing. You can more or less tell, though, from the details of the clothing.
What is more striking is the second comment of the men not appearing like Osama. Banal as it may seem, the comparison is astounding. What makes it necessary? If anything, I would point to the variety in facial hair. One has a short beard and the other two have moustaches, commonly worn in Pakistan. Beards in Islam, are considered a sunnah or Prophetic example of religious practice. Wearing them is an example of piety but not required. Many considered to be religious leaders are often judged by their pious dress. Yet, the Reuters treatment of their bodies and their relationship to Osama reveals the kind of racialization I’m talking about. Either as adherents of al-Qaeda that are fictive kin, or as relatives that might look like Osama, the report is making judgments based on kinship and a distinct biopolitical logic of racism. That their deaths are commented on as blood streaming from their bodies only adds to the agenda of racism that ends in annihilation. In the third chapter of my book I talk about how photographs and terror alerts are used to incite racial panics and control them through the policing apparatus of the security state. In specific, I looked at the images circulated about al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his capture, also in Pakistan. Some of the readers of this blog will recall the heavily manufactured image circulating about KSM with him looking disheveled and in an undershirt (If not, it’s in the book!). These images matter because they import so much meaning and are able to convey a message without needing to say it explicitly. More often that not, that’s how racism can hide without being explicit, and justify death without needing to say so.
MIMI: Hijab describes a set of clothing practices that “adheres” a sense of alien being to the feminine Muslim body in North American and European visual cultures. Its criminalization is spreading, as you know, throughout West Europe in particular, even though hijab is of course much more complicated than such racial and civilizational discourses allow. What does this sense of criminalization tell you about the politics of Islamic clothing?
JUNAID: It’s ironic that many well-meaning folks with liberal, left, or progressive views can absolutely not understand how veiling in any of its forms from hijab to full niqab can be a choice and a radical critique of the contradictions of humanist values. They will say: “those women are so oppressed,” and chalk it up to patriarchy, a sort of passivity that requires a rescue narrative. As many postcolonial scholars and feminists have argued Muslim women veil for many reasons, despite the imperial hubris many have in thinking they need saving. The reality is we live in a patriarchal world in which the veil is a source of adhering to religious beliefs of piety and humility while also finding avenues of participation, and in the context of the US it is a source of protection in a general society that is Islamophobic. In the US, the increasing movement to veil comes in the context of the rise of anti-Muslim racism since the early 1970s. The hijab, in fact, has empowered many women in the US public sphere to deal with racism and the double standards of sexism that are structural and place them within the history in the US of dominating women and communities of color. Although Europe and France in particular, have their own histories of colonialism and context of anti-immigrant racism that has led to growing discontent of the vast social disparities many of these communities face, Islam is seen as having too much culture in contrast to the demands of a liberated monocultural nationalism. The situation in European national publics is far worse for Muslims but there are similar logics that connect all of these places in terms of Islamophobia and racism – and the failure to adequately address these issues.
MIMI: What are your thoughts on the blog, “Muslims Wearing Things,” (subtitled “Muslims and Their Garb”) which is one activist’s response to the ways in which the Muslim body is always already rendered “alien” through certain sartorial signs?
JUNAID: I think what the website is about out is pretty self-evident, so I don’t have much to say. Instead I would point your readers to the work of Wafaa Bilal who has engaged in some amazing art practices regarding the body, geopolitical mapping, and death. In his performance art piece entitled “…And Counting,” he makes his body a site of the memory of war, killing, and art as activism. It’s some really heavy stuff that is surprisingly straightforward as an aesthetic practice. Ronak Kapadia, a graduate student at NYU, has been writing some brilliant things about this. He should be the next tie to this thread.
Word in the blogosphere is that Vogue Italia has published yet another all-Black editorial in the current issue, titled “Tribute to Black Beauties.” This, following their February 2011 editorial called “The Black Allure.” Recall too that in the same month, American Vogue ran its own all-Black editorial called “Gangs of New York” featuring Joan Smalls, Ajak Deng, Arlenis Sosa, Chanel Iman, Anais Mali, Jourdan Dunn and Sessilee Lopez in Rodarte. (Also, who could forget the much-hyped all-Black issue of Vogue Italia in July 2008?) I haven’t picked up a copy of the current issue yet but from what I’ve read about the issue, there’s some room for optimism.
For example, the feature article takes great care to recognize the heterogeneity and diversity of Blackness. Here’s a translation of the article, written by Claire Sulmers, (founder of The Fashion Bomb):
With bright eyes peering out under deliciously curled lashes, cheekbones and jawbones contoured as if chiseled from sharp stone, full noses, and sumptuously lush lips, black women are unquestionably beautiful.
A tribute is due to the woman whose skin tone ranges from alabaster to mahogany to smooth onyx, who can flawlessly carry any makeup look—from gold dusted lids to fuchsia blush to ripe purple and pink glosses. These pages pay homage to the versatile woman whose hair can oscillate from a tightly coiled and coifed Afro, to sleek layers, to a slicked back pixie cut in a matter of minutes. To the divine woman whose enviably full lips, strong, white teeth, and delightful smile have been known to electrify the hearts of many. To the siren whose smooth, velvety skin blocks the sun yet remains supple and unblemished with the passage of time.
Variable and diverse, black beauty escapes simple classification. But no matter the incarnation—whether the color of molasses, café au lait, bronze, tan, or tinged like desert sand—black beauties radiate with poise and multidimensional splendor.
It’s great that we’re seeing more non-white models in the representational landscape of fashion but clearly, traditional fashion media can do better. First, the separation and containment of non-white models in “special” editorials in mainstream rags ultimately reproduces and secures whiteness as racially normative. Second, the bodies of the most popular Black and Asian models are also physically normative – thin, tall, young, and able-bodied. And finally it’s important to remember that despite all the hype surrounding all-Black editorials or “the rise of Asian models,” major fashion magazines and industry events continue to be glaringly white. That is to say, most of the modeling jobs continue to go to white models.
Despite Alexa Chung’s views on blogs, they are important sites of new fashion media because they introduce into the fashion imaginary a diversity of bodies that are still being shut out of traditional fashion media. In fact, a great many non-white, non-tall, non-model thin fashionable types featured in fashion magazines are bloggers like Susie Bubble, BryanBoy, Tamu McPherson (my new favorite!), Tavi Gevinson, and Lesley Kinzel – though they often appear in special feature stories about bloggers.
X-Ray Spex front woman Poly Styrene passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Germ-Free Adolescents remains on my Desert Island List of Greatest Punk Albums Ever, and Poly is as ever an example. (I still dress like her in these videos.) As French philosopher Jacques Derrida observed so well, “an example always carries beyond itself: it thereby opens up a testamentary dimension. The example is first of all for others, and beyond the self.” Thank you, Poly, from all us “others.”
This photograph has been making the rounds on Tumblr for a couple of weeks. (I found it on a l’allure garconniere.) It seems clear that long-time LIFE magazine photographer Howard Sochurek took this and many other photos on the eastern coast of Malaysia in the 1950s – some sources give the publication date of these photos in 1951 but others say 1957. The beach was then called the Beach of Passionate Love (Pantai Cinta Berahi) but Malaysian officials changed the name to Moonlight Beach (Pantai Cahaya Bulan) to reduce the sexual connotations of the name.
The photos are undeniably beautiful but I’m interested in why the photos were taken. (I’ve learned to be more than a little suspicious of mainstream images of scantily clad women, particularly women of color in “exotic” settings. The last photo – and there are many like these in the series – in which a “native man” figures as scenic background also triggers an Orientalist red flag for me. For more on this, see Mimi’s “Background Color” posts here and here.) In any case, I want to know more about the context of these photos.
So this is a public request – if anyone has more information, please share!
Thanks to Cat’s sleuthing, we now know something more about the images. In an article in LIFE magazine (31 December 1951) called “Life Visits the Beach of Passionate Love,” the journalist writes of this beach:
In Malaya in these times the beach has a special charm, for Pantai Chinta Berahi is part of a small area which remains peaceful and happy in a country widely scarred by guerrilla warfare. The pictures on these and the following two pages record a recent week’s varied activities at the beach, and confirm the widely forgotten fact no people love pleasure more than Asians.
Also, my earlier question about the Orientalist discursive construction of these images seem to be answered by the juxtaposition of images of Tai (green bathing suit) in her “modern look” with images of women in the “Malay Look” in “native dress.” In the visual language of sartorial Orientalism, “native dress” marks the (non-white) woman as inherently unmodern while the bathing suit signals a liberated and cosmopolitan femininity that is tacitly modern and Western.
More photos from this series below (note these images do not appear in the original article):