A Choice of Fabric or a Choice of Words?

by Guest Contributor Wendi Muse, originally published at the Coup Magazine Blog

I woke up a bit late on Friday morning, yet despite my tardiness, I decided to humor myself with the usual banter of morning television. While simultaneously slipping on shoes and attempting to do something with my hair without the help of a mirror, I used my free hand to change the channel to NBC for the Today Show with Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira.

On the studio stage stood about five women, all glowing, smiley, and decked out in lingerie. The catch? They were mommies-to-be. That’s right. Bedroom chic for expectant mothers was the topic of discussion. Considering my complete lack of maternal instinct, I was tempted to turn the tv off when something uttered by the special guest stylist/fashion critic made me pause. While I don’t recall the exact quote, I remember the camera zooming in on a black mommy lingerie model as the critic noted the joy and pain of an increased bustline and a larger bottom, respectively, with the onslaught of pregnancy.

Hmmm…

I don’t know about you, but I wish my butt were bigger. Though it may seem trivial, the critic’s assessment of preferable body type could be easily considered the norm for only a few groups, of which black and Caribbean Latina women would customarily not be a part. As a large backside is generally more accepted, if not a expected aspect of the black and/or Latina beauty ideal, I find it humorous, though predictable, that the white female commentator would disregard this, making her comment as if ALL women want smaller bottoms and bigger boobs. But things went beyond petty and got a little worse (aka I kept the television on for a few more seconds in order to watch the ridiculousness unfold) when the critic turned to the next model: a pregnant blond in leopard print.

The critic guided us, as she noted that the next model was wearing “ETHNIC” print, which is really hot in this season’s lingerie lines. Last time I checked, leopard print wasn’t an ethnicity, nor were the people where, say, leopards live, covered in spots themselves. Though an innocent and completely unintentionally offensive slip of the tongue, the critic’s likening of animal print to ethnicity and, on top of that, the implications of the term “ethnic” (read: non-white; in this case, of African descent considering the type of animal print) indicate privilege and a disregard for the complexities of race. The Irish, for example, are made up of several ethnicities, as are many other groups of Europe, but their whiteness often shields them from receiving this moniker.

“Ethnic” is reserved for people of color. The term, while seen as PC and harmless, nevertheless evokes tons of images, often those relegating people of color to the lowest, most “primitive” of states. After all, tartan plaid isn’t considered “ethnic,” but animal print is? How is one to interpret this other than assuming that the person utilizing this term may have preconceived notions of or underlying biases against certain groups. And if not that, the use of the term in this way, on national morning tv, is an indication that the layers of meaning upon so many of the words we use can be easily ignored if the term is used in a lighter context. Will racist epithets become the racial categories of the future? Will they find their way deeper into our speech, songs, and media in the ways that “Eenie Meenie Mynie Moe” or terms like “Rule of Thumb” and “Gypped” (from “gypsy”) have weaseled into the American English vernacular?