In the last few weeks, several writers have tackled the concatenation of concerns surrounding “native appropriations” in so-called hipster fashions. (Feathered headdresses, for example, are among the latest accessories for sale by retailers such as usual suspects Urban Outfitters. For not-equivalent-but-possibly-relevant commentary, see my “History and the Harem Pant,” or Minh-Ha’s “Blackface, and the Violence of Revulsion.”) Neither of us are able to comment at length right now because we’re both on our separate ways out of town (having said that, one of the first things I would do is explore the difference between an analytic of appropriation as a property relation and an analytic of alienation as a social-historical one, in response to the many comments to these posts that protest that indigenous peoples do not have a “monopoly” on feathers), but I thought I would bookmark these writers for our readers’ perusal.
“All of these cases romanticize Indianness, blur separate traditions (as well as the real and the fake), and some disregard Indian spirituality. They all happily forget that, before white America decided that American Indians were cool, some whites did their absolute best to kill and sequester them. And the U.S. government is still involved in oppressing these groups today.“
Julia at a l’allure garconneire penned an epic essay, called “the critical fashion lover’s (basic) guide to cultural appropriation,” in partial response to the Jezebel syndication of the above Sociological Images post. (Many Jezebel commenters expressed hostility and indifference to the post, hurling accusations of “PC policing” or suggesting that “it’s just fashion, who cares?” Julia capably responds to some of the more representative comments.)
“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.”
Molly Ann Blakowski at the University of Michigan’s Arts, Ink. suggests in “The Hipster Headress: A Fashion Faux Pas” that while the trend in feathered headresses is neither ironic nor chic, it is hardly the worst injury in a long history of violence.
Not to say some people aren’t offended – it’s definitely apparent in the posts’ feedback – but I’ve got a hunch that the hundreds of years of broken promises, stolen homelands, trails of tears, and more or less genocide at assimilative boarding schools are probably a bit more offensive than lame hipsters wearing headdresses. No, it’s cool, it’s not like your ancestors killed them all or anything-” (or your university possesses their grandparents in cardboard boxes). Choosing to wear these items out to a party leaves you looking foolish, no matter your intentions. Regardless of whether or not you’re offending someone of Native origin, you’re offending yourself.
“Whether it’s headbands, feathers, bone necklaces, mukluks, or moccasins – at least put some damn thought into WHAT you are wearing and WHERE it’s from. I know our people sell these things en masse in gift shops and trading posts, and it seems like it’s an open invitation to buy it and flaunt it, but you could at least check the label to see A. If it’s made by actual Indigenous people/communities B. What does this really mean if YOU wear it?”
Finally, the heated comments in Yee’s post (both on the Bitch blog and on the Bitch Facebook) inspired someone to post the always-handy internet meme, the “Fill in the Blank” Bingo Card — in this case, the “Cultural Appropriation” Bingo Card (created by Elusis):
EDITED AGAIN TO ADD: Please do send additional linkages if you find them! Like this one, My Culture Is Not A Trend, which is an entire Tumblr dedicated to the apparently accelerating “feathers and fashion” phenomenon. She writes in a recent post, “When you enter into these arguments, ask yourself ‘Is my right to wear something pretty greater than someone’s right to cultural autonomy and dignity?'”
Or this one, in which K. of Side Ponytail (best blog name by the way) points to another, poignant dimension of unequal access in “on headdresses“:
April: There is a HUGE difference between being gifted authentic regalia and wearing shit because you think it’s cute. Also, a headdress is not something you wear FOR KICKS, you know?
K: I don’t know, don’t you ever have those days where you roll out of bed and say to yourself, “I deserve a headdress today!”
April: “Because in my life, every day is a pow wow! That’s how SPECIAL and UNIQUE I am!” EXTRA TRAGEDY: So many native folks, especially kids! can’t afford to create or have real regalia created. But it’s super cool that [white girls] can have [their] knockoffs.
The other day April and I were talking about the recent glut of Native American “inspired” fashion trends, including (but by no means limited to) headdresses and moccasins. (This conversation was partly inspired by April’s work with an Indian community organization and my tendency to be annoyed by basically everything I see on the internet.) I thought this snippet of the conversation was worth sharing, mainly for April’s point that many native folks (especially kids, that kids part kills me) CAN’T AFFORD to have regalia of their own.
Thea Lim at Racialicious decontructs “some basic racist ideas and some rebuttals” in response to the increasingly heinous comments at Bitch for Jessica Yee’s essay.
Incidentally Bitch is also a pop culture site, so it kinda makes sense that Jessica talk about hipsters there. Bitch readers come to Bitch to talk about feminism and pop culture, but they don’t want to talk about racism and pop culture?
The “get over it” defense is not hard to take down as soon as you realise that by “it” the commenter is referring to colonisation and genocide, the legacy of which continues to beset Native communities in the form of poverty, environmental racism, and health disparities (to recap some of the things Jessica mentioned in the original post).
The whole “but that happened 100 years ago!” defense is similarly dense: a brief look at who is poor and who is marginalised in the richest countries in the world should quiet that one down…though it often doesn’t. There’s no accounting for pigheadedness.
And beyond this? Racism manifests itself in a million different ways, from massive structural inequalities, to the accessories of that fashionable person on the subway next to you. And sometimes it is easier for folks to understand and tackle the small things; for me, it was a long journey to the admission that racism exists and impacts my daily life. Talking about pop culture was a baby step that I could take; it was also something that was familiar and accessible when I didn’t really understand the academic language of postcolonial theory, or couldn’t imagine that words like “double marginalization” “diaspora” or even “immigrant” could apply to me.
EDITED ONCE AGAIN: Confused about the meaningful differences between distinct histories of exchange? They are not all the same. Read also these excerpts from Coco Fusco’s 1995 essay “Who’s Doing the Twist?” Also, new at Native Appropriations are some of the answers to the apparently compelling question, “But why can’t I wear a hipster headress?”