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!
Congratulations to Tasasha H, Conductress, and Kassandra! You will each be receiving a signed copy of Alondra Nelson‘s new book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.
Huge thanks go to the University of Minnesota Press for generously agreeing to offer 3 copies of this amazing book to our readers as well to as our allies at Racialicious for syndicating our discussion with Alondra Nelson on the style and substance of the Black Panther Party. Big thanks, also, to everyone who read, commented, retweeted, and reposted this piece. The post had thousands of hits! Thank you!!
The book will be available next month for purchase – please do buy it! It’s such an important book about, as the host of Alondra’s book party recently put it, “a story we think we know.” (Pre-orders are available as well!)
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!
* * * * * * *
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!
* * * * * * * *
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.”
A short video on copyright just came over my Twitter feed today which got me thinking about the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act (good god) or as it’s also known the Fashion Copyright Law. The video is below but first, a quick review of the status of the IDPPPA: In December 2010, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill that would give copyright protection to clothing design. I read last month that it had finally arrived to the Senate for a vote but I don’t know if the vote has happened yet. I’m guessing not. While the CFDA and other institutions, agencies, and people of the fashion establishment are fighting hard to get this bill passed, there are a number of organizations, economists, lawyers, designers, and manufacturers who are opposed to it. They include Johanna Blakely whose TED talk, I believe, we posted on our Facebook wall. Blakely also wrote an article for The New Design Observer called “The Costs of Ownership: Why Copyright Protection Will Hurt the Fashion Industry.” Also see TechDirt’s post “Yet Again, Evidence Of The Need For Fashion Copyright Is Totally And Completely Missing” and the countless articles about the booming luxury market (at a time when the copyright protections for fashion are very limited, mostly to logo trademarks). Here’s a recent one. Also, see Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman’s (a.k.a. the Freakonomics guys) testimony against the IDPPPA. Finally – though she doesn’t write about fashion copyright specifically, check out Martha Woodmansee’s fabulous work on the history and politics of copyright. Her book, The Author, Art, and the Market is brilliant.
The script can be found here: http://blog.cgpgrey.com/copyright-forever-less-one-day/
Soon after I last posted on punk pants (one of my favorite posts thus far), the wonderful Hellen Jo sent me a set of buttons I’d ordered with her portraits of Korean all-girl group 2NE1, and made me this awesome envelope to boot! (I still look like this on the inside.) And after that last post, I took a long vacation from Threadbared. It was semi-planned, but still sorta accidental — I just had too much to do elsewhere. But most of that is done –or done enough!– and I’m hoping to return to some sort of schedule here. I’m teaching The Politics of Fashion again this semester (with some students who know what I mean about punk pants too!), and I’m optimistic about what I might encounter during the next few months.
My photographs didn’t do justice to these rad three-inch buttons, so I have borrowed Hellen’s. (All sold out, though!) If only these could be my teaching looks this semester (though I do some that are very close…).
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.”
It’s been a long time since we’ve done a “Wired for the Weekend” post but Beverly McClellan’s recent performance on The Voice is well worth posting. I couldn’t stand American Idol (e.g., the snark of the judges, the mean-spirited tone of the audition sections, the – mostly – bubble gum pop music etc.) but I’ve been enjoying The Voice because of singers like Beverly McClellan [and also Dia Frampton (Hapa!), Vicci Martinez, and Xenia Martinez (love the tone of her voice)].
McClellan’s recent performance was absolutely spectacular. Her voice, her stage presence, and even her quirky dance moves . . . loved it all. (For a way better analysis of McClellan and Martinez’s performances than I could offer, see Karen Tongson’s brilliant post “Hearing Queerly” at her Sound Studies Blog in which she asks us to take seriously “the sonic dynamism of lesbianism.”)
There are a couple of things I do have to get off my chest though. It’s too bad that Cee Lo and the homophobic Blake Shelton try to feminize and (hetero)sexualize McClellan but, of course, their normative perspectives and intentions matter not even a little bit with regard to McClellan’s performance. Since it is The Voice, maybe the judges are better off sticking to comments about the aural aspects of the performances because they don’t seem to get the visual at all. First of all, McClellan is not wearing a skirt. She’s wearing a kilt paired with a military jacket and she looks effing amazing. I feel like she’s channeling Marc Jacobs, actually. Second, does Shelton really think that calling McClellan hot is a compliment?! He can take his “compliment” and shove it. Uh-huh.