Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

Five of cultural appropriation’s greatest hits

Miley Cyrus neither invented twerking nor cultural appropriation in music. What follows is a crowd-sourced list of some “great” moments in musical cultural appropriation.

“Vogue,” Madonna

Said one contributor to this list, “[Madonna] owes her whole career to appropriation, POC props and GLBT props, too…The idea that people associate her with vogueing is pretty much the textbook definition of appropriation of marginalized cultures, gay and black.”

 

“Waiting on a Friend,” The Rolling Stones

You know what makes New York City look extra gritty? Black people. You know you’ve hit the big time when you can get reggae legend Peter Tosh to serve as a random black extra hanging on a stoop.

 

“Luxurious,” Gwen Stefani

Gwen Stefani is the patron saint of icky cultural appropriation since that time she tried to keep a posse of Japanese women as pets. Here she kicks it Cali-style with her best Latino friends.

This fuckery committed with her bandmates in No Doubt cannot go unmentioned.

 

“Save a Prayer,” Duran Duran

I was a “Nick girl” back in the mid-80s when every self-respecting teenage girl was a Duranie. It failed to occur to me then how often the band illustrating their jet set coolness by frolicking in front of exotic flora, fauna and, y’know, brown people.

 

“We Can’t Stop,” Miley Cyrus

Would that we could stop this hot mess. If you haven’t read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece on the black female bodies Cyrus chose to foreground her whiteness. Do it. Now.

Debbie Reese Takes On Hipster Racism In A Golden Calf In Weetzie Bat

When I was in high school, Weetzie Bat was the underground required reading for girls who wore pilly cardigans and name dropped fanzine editors. For those who read it, it almost so special that we didn’t want to tell anyone else about it. I remember feeling that way a lot actually; holding something so close to my heart that I didn’t want to give it away. It’s because these things had saved me, were saving me, and my biggest fear was that they would gain so much popularity that they’d get co opted by the normal kids and ruined (see “Nirvana”).When you love a book, you don’t just want to read it again, you want to BE it. At least that’s where I go. I didn’t just love Weetzie, I wanted to be her. If Bret Easton Ellis made LA seem like it was all rich kids and gay death human pinwheels, Francesca Lia Block turned the city into a magical punk fairy tale. To be fair, I wanted both versions to exist and sometimes couldn’t decide what I liked better (still feel that way).Weetzie had a boyfriend, My Secret Agent Lover Man, and a gay BFF. They made movies in “Shangri-L.A.” (Hollywood), lived in a cute cottage, and had weird drama that involved sexual trysts, unplanned pregnancies, and gay lovers with AIDS. DREAM LIFE!  Weetzie had bleached blond hair and was probably really thin. In my brain she sort of looked like a young Belinda Carlisle.Who owns the film rights? Does Francesca Lia Block still rule? All these questions and more can be answered on your local Wikipedia page (or by doing more research).LYMI, Lesley

The many covers of Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block, via. thereal90s.tumblr.com

By Guest Contributor Debbie Reese*

Years ago I started reading Weetzie Bat but put it down, in part, because of these passages in the first few pages of the first chapter (Note: To write this post, I read an e-book that doesn’t provide page numbers):

Sometimes she wore Levi’s with white-suede fringe sewn down the legs and a feathered Indian headdress… 

“She” is Weetzie Bat. Her friend, Dirk, who has “chiseled” features compliments her outfit:

Weetzie was wearing her feathered headdress and her moccasins and a pink fringed mini dress.

Weetzie replies:

“Thanks. I made it,” she said, snapping her strawberry bubble gum. “I’m into Indians,” she said. “They were here first and we treated them like shit.” 

“Yeah,” Dirk said, touching his Mohawk.

Weetzie Bat was published in 1989 and won several awards. Reading it today, what comes to mind is the hipster culture of the last few years and its appropriation of Native culture. While writing up this review, I did an image search of “Weetzie Bat.” In the grid of images I got (using Google image search), the first image in the second row I got is this one:

The source for the photo is a Weetzie Bat blog post at an art blog, A Beautiful Party. Dated September 16, 2010, the post is about a screenplay of Weetzie Bat and the photo is of someone playing the part of Weetzie Bat. If I didn’t know it was from Weetzie Bat, I would have thought, “Dang hipsters!”, because I’ve seen a lot of photos of hipsters in headdresses, feathered earrings, fringed clothing, or moccasins. Reading Weetzie Bat now, I wonder if it might have played a role in the 1990s emergence of hipsters and their appropriation of Native culture.

What, I wonder, was Block thinking about when she brought Native culture into her book? What did it mean to her or Weetzie Bat to say “I’m into Indians”?!

In my read of Weetzie Bat there is nothing to suggest that Block knew she was, in effect, having her characters embrace stereotypical “knowledge” about American Indians. (What she does with Jamaican’s gives me pause, too, but I’ll stay on topic.)

In the chapter titled “Jah-Love,” Weetzie meets the guy who will be her boyfriend. His name is My Secret Agent Lover Man (quirky names are everywhere in the book). He makes films of her doing things, like “having a pow-wow.” We aren’t told what she was doing, so we don’t know “having a pow-wow” means. That chapter closes with this:

And so Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Slinkster Dog and Fifi’s canaries lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.

Duck is Dirk’s boyfriend. Slinkster Dog is Weetzie’s dog. “Jah-Love” is, I think, short for Jamaica love but I don’t know what to make of it beyond that. There are, of course, blonde Indians, but the ones in Weetzie Bat are playing Indian–and doing it in stereotypical ways.

Early in the chapter “Weetzie Wants a Baby,” Weetzie, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, and Duck have finished their third film. It is called Coyote. In it, Weetzie is

a rancher’s daughter who falls in love with a young Indian named Coyote and ends up helping him defend his land against her father and the rest of the town. They had filmed Coyote on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Weetzie grew her hair out, and she wore Levi’s and snaky cowboy boots and turquoise. Dirt and Duck played her angry brothers…

It is no surprise that the film makes some money for them. In the story–as in real life–white people defending and rescuing Indians from whites is a sure-fire hit.

Weetzie, as the chapter title tells us, wants a baby. My Secret Agent Lover Man isn’t at all interested in having a baby. He thinks the world is too messed up to bring a child into. While he’s away for a few weeks, Weetzie, Dirk, and Duck decide they want a baby together. They climb into bed together, and Weetzie ends up pregnant. My Secret Agent Lover Man returns, isn’t happy with her decision to get pregnant, and leaves. When the baby is born, Weetzie, Dirt, and Duck decide to name the baby “Cherokee.” There’s no explanation for why they choose Cherokee. All we know is that they considered these names: Sweet, Fifi, Duckling, Hamachi, Teddi, and Lambie.

At the end of the chapter, My Secret Agent Lover Man comes back. He gazes at Cherokee and asks who her father is. Weetzie says that she’s got high cheekbones like Dirk, and blonde hair like Duck, but that her eyes and lips are like his.

Ah, yes. high cheekbones like Dirk. Remember—he’s the guy with the Mohawk.

The last line in the chapter is:

Cherokee looked like a three-dad baby, like a peach, like a tiny moccasin, like a girl love-warrior who would grow up to wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. canyons.

What does a tiny moccasin look like when you’re talking about a baby?! I know the book was/is much loved but–the stereotypical othering aside–the style doesn’t work for me.

In the chapter, “Chapter: Shangri-L.A.,” My Secret Agent Lover Man is making another movie. This one is called Shangri-L.A. Weetzie stars in it. She wears strapless dresses and rhinestones. And,

She made fringed baby clothes and feathered headdresses for Cherokee…

Sheesh! Now there’s headdresses for this baby girl?!

They can’t figure out an ending for the movie, so My Secret Agent Lover Man suggests Weetzie visit her dad in New York to see if he has any ideas. While there, he takes them shopping and buys Cherokee a Pink Panther doll at F.A.O. Schwarz.

If you’re buying a doll at F.A.O. Schwarz—well, if you’re even inside that store, you’re of a certain income level. Even though Weetzie’s source of money is never mentioned, the things they do suggests there’s plenty of it.

While in NY, Weetzie thinks her dad isn’t well. Soon after Weetzie goes back to L.A., he dies, and Weetzie struggles with her grief:

Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplin boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and a Duck, a Slinkster Dog, and a movie to dance in.

Wearing feathers. That’s what Weetzie does. Nowhere do we get any sense that she (or Block) know much about the many distinctions amongst Native peoples. With the use of “papoose” we see more of that ignorance. Papoose is the word for baby in one language. It is not the Indian word for papoose. With over 500 federally recognized Native Nations, there are hundreds of languages, too. The Cherokee word for “baby”, by the way, is not “papoose.”

Cat Yampbell, in “Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature” (The Lion and the Unicorn, 29(3)) says:

The text of Weetzie Bat celebrates those who are torn from society, individuals who find each other and find happiness outside of the box that society defines as the norm.

Michael Cart, in “What a Wonderful World: Notes on the Evolution of GLBTQ Literature for Young Adults” (The ALAN Review, 31(2)), calls it a classic of gay fiction, and says:

its largehearted embrace of every aspect of the workings of the human heart, it demonstrates, with art and innovation, that love is love, regardless of what society chooses to label it.

Though I’ve not done an exhaustive look, I’m unable (thus far) to find any critical essays in which the stereotyping of American Indians is discussed. The book is much celebrated for its affirmation of people who are “outside the box” and/or gay, but I wouldn’t hand it to a Native child who was outside the norm or gay. I can’t elevate one part of who they are and slam another part of their identity at the same time.

Granted, some Native readers would breeze past it and shrug it off, but not all would do that, and I wonder, too, about the readers (like Yampbell? Cart?) who didn’t comment on the stereotyping. Did they not see it because it reflects their “knowledge” of American Indians? Or, did they deem that content insignificant? And what does it mean to decide that one culture is insignificant?

Thinking about those questions is ironic, given what Weetzie said at the top of the story. “I’m into Indians. They were here first and we treated them like shit.” Does Block realize that she’s doing the same thing?

Honoring or being “into” anyone in a superficial way is, in my view, treating them like shit because it is lazy. It allows a feel-good moment to stand in for real learning, real understanding, and meaningful action that would make the world we all live in, a better world.

In doing the research for this post, I read that Block has a new book out–a prequel to Weetzie Bat. I’ll pick it up next time I’m at the library.

*Debbie Reese continues to write on the Francesca Lia Block series in her essays, “Indian American” in Francesca Lia Block’s PINK SMOG and A Native Perspective on Francesa Lia Block’s CHEROKEE BAT AND THE GOAT GUYS.

Suggestions For The Future: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition

by Fashion and Entertainment Editor Joseph Lamour

Emily DiDonato in Namibia. Image via SI.com.

I’m sure by now you’ve heard or you’ve read articles about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition fail that swept like wildfire through the tubes and pipes of the internet. We have enough “WTF, mate?” articles about this most recent cultural appropriation fail, and unless I’m breaking a story–which I’m clearly not since this happened last week–I like to add something new to the conversation. I took a look at the (offending) pictures from this shoot and, frankly, regardless of the use of race props, most of the (again, offending) pictures are just terrible.
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Victoria’s Secret Does It Again: When Racism Meets Fashion

By Guest Contributor Nina Jacinto

In case you missed it, Victoria’s Secret recently launched a new lingerie collection. Entitled “Go East,” it’s the kind of overt racism masked behind claims of inspired fashion and exploring sexual fantasy that makes my skin crawl.

From the website: “Your ticket to an exotic adventure: a sexy mesh teddy with flirty cutouts and Eastern-inspired florals. Sexy little fantasies, there’s one for every sexy you.” The collection varies in its level of exoticism. The “Sexy Little Geisha” is a perversion of its reference, featuring a sultry white model donned in lingerie, chopsticks in her hair, fan in her hand. Other items in the collection include red sleepwear and nightgowns with cherry blossoms. I might have glossed over some of these pieces entirely–except the catalog descriptions had me reeling. “Indulge in touches of Eastern delight.” Translation: “Buying these clothes can help you experience the Exotic East and all the sexual fantasies that come along with it, without all the messy racial politics!”

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DISGRASIAN OF THE WEAK! Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Mini For Target Collection

by Guest Contributor Jen Wang, originally published at Disgrasian

 

I know, I know. It’s just a clothing line! Lighten up! And it’s so kawaii as the ads keep telling me, forcing the word on me like a pacifier to the lips of a crying, reluctant babe. (Wouldn’t be surprised if Gwen Stefani had tried to trademark the Japanese word for “cute” some time in the last 5 years or so. She’s already pretty much got “Harajuku”–the name of a Tokyo neighborhood–locked down legally.) And look, the Harajuku Mini for Target children’s clothes collection, which launches Sunday online and in stores, is“kawaii,” in a “What if a little panda cub who was part skater-punk threw up and it looked like lollipops and rainbows?” sorta way.

 

But, you know, I can forgive, but I can’t forget. Wait, who am I kidding? I can’t forgive either! Because when I see this ad plugging Gwen Stefani’s latest business venture…

…all I see is this:

 

And that is still, always, and forever whatever the Japanese word for “bullshit” is.

[The Stir: Gwen Stefani Harajuku Mini Arrives in Target Sunday!]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day

by Guest Contributor Sasha Houston Brown

Urban Outfitters

Dear Glen T. Senk, CEO Urban Outfitters Inc.

This past weekend, I had the unfortunate experience of visiting a local Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis. It appeared as though the recording “artist” Ke$ha had violently exploded in the store, leaving behind a cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive retail collection. Plastic dreamcatchers wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of artificial feather jewelry and hyper sexualized clothing featuring an abundance of suede, fringe and inauthentic tribal patterns.

In all seriousness, as a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company’s mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor. I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as “fashion.”

All too often industries, sports teams and ignorant individuals legitimize racism under the guise of cultural “appreciation”. There is nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt or the Navajo Hipster Panty. These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures.

Your corporate website claims to “offer a lifestyle-specific shopping experience for the educated, urban-minded individual”. If this is the case, then clearly you have missed the mark on your target demographic. There is simply nothing educated about your collection, which on the contrary professes extreme ignorance and bigotry. Continue reading

Urban Outfitters is Obsessed with Navajos

by Guest Contributor Adrienne Keene, originally published at Native Appropriations

Navajo Nations Crew Pullover

Navajo Nations Crew Pullover

A search for “Cherokee” on the Urban Outfitters website reveals 1 result. A search for “Tribal”: 15. A search for “Native”: 10. “Indian”: 2. But Navajo? 24 products have Navajo in the name alone.

This post started as a massive Urban Outfitters take-down, I spent an hour or so last week scrolling through the pages of the website, and adding anything to my cart that was “Native inspired” or had a tribal name in the description. I got through JUST the women’s clothes and accessories (no mens or apartment), and had 58 items in my cart. So, then, like any good researcher, I began to code my cart for emergent themes, and the one that jumped out far above the rest? Urban Outfitters is obsessed with Navajos.

I want to show you some examples, and then talk a little about the issues with using tribal names in products that are decidedly not-. Finally, I want to share what the Navajo Nation in particular is doing about it, and the action they’ve taken is pretty cool.

Without further ado, some of the “Navajo” products to grace the pages of Urban.

From the basic:

Navajo Quilt Oversized Crop Tee

“Title Unknown Techno Navajo Quilt Oversized Crop Tee”

Truly Madly Deeply Navajo Print Tunic

Truly Madly Deeply Navajo Print Tunic

To the totally random:

Navajo Feather Earrings

Navajo Feather Earrings
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Mardi Gras Indians: Can Cultural Appropriation Occur on the Margins?

by Guest Contributor Adrienne K., originally published at Native Appropriations

Mardi Gras Indian

Last week, the New York Times published a really interesting article concerning Mardi Gras Indians, specifically looking at the possibility of  the “Indians” copyrighting their costumes so their images can’t be used in things like calendars, promotional materials, etc, without their consent. I’ll get to that issue in a second post, but I think the entire concept of Mardi Gras Indians deserves a deeper look.
Let’s look at the ‘culture’ of the Mardi Gras Indians, independent of history and context (something the anthropologist in me cringes at, but work with me), then we’ll backtrack a bit.

These men and women call themselves “Indians.” They are members of “tribes,” with names like “Yellow Pocahontas,” “Geronimo Hunters,” and “Flaming Arrows” (a complete list of the tribes is here). They wear over-the-top, elaborate costumes based (very) loosely on American Indian powwow regalia–with headdresses, feathers, and beading (there is a slideshow on nytimes.com that can be found here):


They have an anthem called “Indian Red” whose lyrics include:

I’ve got a Big Chief, Big Chief, Big Chief of the Nation
Wild, wild creation
He won’t bow down, down on the ground
Oh how I love to hear him call Indian Red
When I throw my net in the river
I will take only what I need
Just enough for me and my lover

Objectively, out of context, this is by-definition cultural appropriation. Imagine if these were white men and women. I should be offended…right? Continue reading