Zebras, “tribal” prints: It’s Afrika!

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published on What Tami Said

So, over on Feministing, Samhita wrote an article about the new Afrika line of clothing by American Apparel. Under the headline: “Jungle prints are back,” the blogger wrote:

And this time to add to the classiness, they are being marketed as the “Afrika” collection. Please get ready to see self proclaimed, post-racist, ironic hipsters near you wearing this fall trend. You know because this isn’t totally racist or anything. This company will never cease to amaze me, in every way.

I’m siding with Samhita on this one. While I would not use the word racist to describe what American Apparel has done wrong, I would use exotification, “othering,” cultural commodification and, well, stupidity. Plenty of Feministing commenters disagree, however, with lots getting stuck on the idea that wearing animal print is inherently racially offensive. No one is saying that. The problem is not zebra print. The problem is distilling a continent of many countries, cultures, languages and peoples down to its wildlife and faux tribal print. There is a tired “dark continent” stereotype at the heart of the American Apparel clothing line’s name and marketing. And THAT is a problem.

What other continent is viewed this way? When was the last time you saw a fashion collection of brown bear fur and Celtic prints labeled “Europe!” No one would buy a pan-European marketing ploy that blended Irish culture with prints from animals found in upper Scandinavia and Russia. Such a thing would be foolish. But no one can be bothered to know the difference between Zambia and Mauritania. Africa becomes just a mush of dark tribal folk and wild animals, and suffers the indignity of insensitive marketing all the time. Asia, too, but that’s another post. (Someone needs to stop Gwen Stefani before she appropriates again.)

What do you think? Is American Apparel’s new Afrika line simply an homage or typical hipster cultural tone deafness? (Be sure to check out the comments over on Feministing. A link is at the top of this post.)