Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

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.)

Literary memoirs, lies, race, and appropriation

by Carmen Van Kerckhove and Latoya Peterson

The latest fake memoir scandal erupted last week. Margaret B. Jones’ critically acclaimed book “Love and Consequences,” about a half white, half Native American girl’s experiences with sexual abuse, foster care, and gang violence, turned out to be a complete fabrication. Not only did Margaret Seltzer (her real name) actually grow up with her white biological family in well-to-do neighborhood, but she even faked the foundation she supposedly started to end gang violence. Latoya and Carmen had an IM conversation about it…

Carmen: It’s funny because just a few days before I this story broke, I had been thinking about this very issue while skimming some book reviews
in Elle. Why is it that these literary memoirs about people with fucked-up lives are written by white folks? Is there something about a white person experiencing this kind of dysfunction that seems unusual or abnormal? Whereas if a person of color wrote something similar, it would strike people as par for the course? And therefore less marketable?

Latoya: Def – it’s all about the fucked up lives of white people, I guess because they just assume minorities are fucked up so there is nothing special about that. I was reading ABW, and one of her guest bloggers mentioned how Felicia “Snoop” Pearson of The Wire has a book about her life and experiences…that didn’t get nearly as much press. And, I’ll agree, probably not a $100K advance either.

But that’s neither here or there.

My question is why did no one pick up the phone and verify the basics of her account? The publishing industry wants to act like they publish too many books to check – but they can’t take 30 minutes to call the Child Welfare department or whatever state organization is in charge of child care and verify she was there from xxxx – xxxx?

Carmen: Seriously. And if you think about how long the life cycle of a book is (can take 2 or 3 years to actually get published) – there is plenty of time for some basic fact-checking.

I was really struck by the fact that she chose to identify as half Native-American, half white, when in real life she’s just white. What did you make of that?

Latoya: Minority street cred?

Maybe she was trying to find the most oppressed group to identify with?

I’m just confused about the whole situation. The biggest thing I’m wondering about – if these were people she knew through her work, why didn’t she publish their memoirs? Or a book about her experiences? Or an anthology of their stories? Why did she feel the need to internalize their suffering and insert herself into the narrative?

Carmen: Who knows – maybe her agent told her that would be an easier sell? Not saying she has no blame/say in the matter, but there are people other than her involved in this project, I’m sure.

It is amazing though, that after Oprah ripped James Frey a new asshole on (inter)national television, that publishers wouldn’t take at least some basic precautions to prevent a similar debacle. Continue reading

Scapegoating or Community Empowerment? The Flipside of the “Korean Takeover of the Black Haircare Industry” Debate

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

After Latoya wrote the excellent article “Know Your Place, Woman: BET’s Meet the Faith on Black Marriage,” I decided to do a little additional research by checking out the BET site for the show with the all the questionable content. I ended up reading very little on Meet the Faith. In fact, the one thing that stood out to me about the site was actually a random distraction . . .

Toward the bottom of the page regarding a segment on black beauty, I noticed a survey entitled “Korean or Black Owned?” The caption read:

For the most part, Black haircare products didn’t exist until Madame C.J. Walker introduced her Wonderful Hair Grower in the early 1900s. Today, there are still very few products and equipment made for or sold by Blacks.

For such a loaded topic, there were only two simple questions:

1. There are two beauty supply stores next to each other. One is Korean-owned and sells your shampoo for $10. The other is Black-owned and sells your shampoo for $12. Where would you buy your shampoo? The Black-Owned Store or The Korean-Owned Store?

2. If the Korean-owned shop sold items $2 to $3 higher, where do you think the average Korean customer would shop? The Black-Owned Store or The Korean-Owned Store?

I immediately felt the urge to look into what had compelled this very basic set of questions and find some answers. Carmen raised a question of her own back in December, “Do Korean-Americans Control the Black Hair Market?” prompting readers to check out Aron Ranen’s documentary Black Hair and leaving them to render their own judgment on the issue. Half a year later, however, I find myself asking less about the prospect of Korean market dominance in the black haircare industry, and more about the process of seeking an answer to the inquiry itself. What methods have we used to publicly examine this market dominance and what effect have they had on the respective communities involved?

First and foremost, there is the film by Ranen. Black Hair is a documentary created to bring attention to the plight of people of African descent who attempt to manufacture and/or distribute black hair care products within the black community as they face considerable adversity in a market now controlled by Korean immigrants and their families. While some, including members of the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA), see the film, as absolute truth, I find that it could be quite easily interpreted as an open attack on Koreans. I understand quite clearly that the film is a powerful form of advocacy for keeping money spent and earned by African-Americans in the black community, but I question the need for Ranen’s clear manipulation of an already troubled case of ethnic disunity between American blacks and Korean immigrants as a means to push the “buy black” agenda.

During an interview with NPR, Ranen is asked whether or not his film creates “an environment that shows Korean proprietors as the enemy.” In defense of his work, he answers simply that he does not want to be a “hater,” but instead he wants to be a “motivator.” Yet I can’t help but consider his attempt to “motivate” the black community suspect. By publicly picking at old wounds between Koreans and African-Americans, Ranen has tapped into an increasingly lucrative market for the press: inter-ethnic conflict. The American media can’t get enough of it. Stories about people of color fighting other people of color, even if their initial disagreement has little to do with race or ethnic background, always make headline news, often yielding skewed and/or distorted results. Asian-American activist Helen Zia discusses this phenomenon in her book Asian American Dreams with regard to the L.A. Riots: Continue reading

Martha Stewart, Playing with “Indian” Names?

by guest contributor BB, originally published at Brady Braves

Well, this was a rare moment: a story on Indianz.com involving Martha Stewart. She has a place (i.e., 153-acre estate purchased in 2000 for the trifling cost of $16 million) in Katonah, NY. Now, Stewart wants to trademark “Katonah” for some of her products. Never mind if Katonah residents (of the Village Improvement Society in Katonah) are not pleased. Never mind if today’s descendants of Chief Katonah of the Lenape Nation are not pleased. As reported by Jim Fitzgerald, AP, Diana Pearson, a Stewart spokesperson, says Stewart “seeks to honor the town and the hamlet by using the word `Katonah.’”

And I suppose the Hornell Brewing Company had “honor” in mind when it slapped the revered name Crazy Horse on malt liquor bottles in 1992. (Crazy Horse, says David Wilkins (Lumbee) in American Indian Politics (2001), “is remembered as a staunch Sioux nationalist who remained committed to his people throughout his short life. He never signed a treaty with the federal government, and he opposed the use of alcohol by his people” (229)). I suppose Liz Claiborne, fashion guru, also had “honor” in mind when her clothing company threaded Crazy Horse (and Cherokee) on tags. Although one of Stewart’s lawyers said that his client’s use of the name “will not stop Katonah residents – or anyone else – from using the name Katonah exactly as they always have,” what will happen? Likely, Katonah becomes synonymous with Martha Stewart products (much to Stewart’s delight, the BBB imagines), not with Lenape People, not with descendants of Katonah, not with respect for Indigenous Peoples, not with honor for Katonah, New York, residents. To Ms. Stewart and Ms. Stewart followers: One’s intentions do not always match the effects.

As said before in “Indian” mascot debates and other contested arenas, it is difficult to honor those who are not honored, including Autumn Scott (Ramapough Lenape), the New Jersey State Commission on Indian Affairs co-chair. “We trust,” Scott explains, “that Martha Stewart intended no malice in seeking to have her corporation trademark the name of one of our great ancestral leaders, but for her to say she is doing so to honor him and our tribe is absurd, especially when it is being done solely for profit.” Although Stewart is talking of honoring the town, a place of refuge for her, the town is named after the Lenape (Delaware) leader. Stewart, then, would do well to address certain Native People’s warranted concerns. So far, she has greeted them with silence.

Stewart may not talk, but we Brady Braves can. Thoughts of righteous anger can be sent to television@marthastewart.com (address available at www.marthastewart.com, more specifically this page) A customer service number available at www.marthastewartstore.com is 1-800-357-7060.

Shop Boyz “Party Like a Rock Star”: mocking metal? or celebrating it?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

What do you think of this video?

Oh Word
sees it as payback for all the years of white people making fun of hip hop:

imagine my joy when I saw a bunch of perfectly ignant crunk kids accidentally pissing on the whole concept of mainstream punk-metal. By being just as clueless and careless as the average comedy writer or rock band dealing in rap signifiers (SAT word alert) they’ve turned the tables on a 25 years worth of bad jokes by white people. Or to put it simply, Fred Durst and his ilk had no clue about rap and now it’s payback time. Half the K-rok crowd will laugh with it and half will be pissed but at least the playing field will be a little more even next time someone wants to pull out a whiteboy-goes-ghetto joke.

Or is this a sincere homage to metal? As Latoya recently pointed out, “a modified rock-punk look” is becoming popular among black and Latino kids. Is this just a natural extension of that?

Ghetto Chic: To Wear or Not to Wear?

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

Lily Allen rocks it (kinda), Will Smith used to, and about 8 out of 10 hipster 20-somethings I see every single time I walk into an “up and coming” neighborhood in NYC seems to have filled their closets with it. Door-knocker earrings, yellow gold chains, hoodies with loud neon prints, and even grills are popping up everywhere. The 80s are back with a vengeance in NYC, but tinted more the color of Salt N Peppa than The Bangles. It’s no surprise that some of the more decadent style choices of the black and Latino working class from 20 years ago are reflected in H&Ms worldwide or seeping their way into the minds of the fashion conscious. After all, the history of fashion has shown us that cross-cultural appropriation (race, class, and nationality-based) is a common catalyst for the next big trends. Yet no matter how cute so-called “ghetto chic” may be, I just can’t bring myself to wear it.

Maybe it’s because I’ve reached that certain period in my life at which the combining of “work” clothes and “play” clothes has become a necessity to keep down costs and save closet space, but I feel that there is something deeper inside that prevents me from embracing my inner old school rap star. For one, it’s a matter of nomenclature. The term “ghetto” is evocative of “negative” images (poverty, housing projects, crime, drug use, lack of education), and remains racialized by the media. Ghettoes and poverty are typically associated with blacks and Latinos, even though as a result of the racial demographics of the United States, there are technically more poor whites. According to a U.S. Census Bureau Press Release from 2003, though “non-Hispanic whites had a lower poverty rate than other racial groups, [they] accounted for 44 percent of the people in poverty,” which makes me wonder why whites are virtually ignored in discussions of class and blacks and Latinos are always assumed to make up the majority of the poor population in this country. . . but that’s another article.

Over time, the term “ghetto” has been used in a way that separates it from its history, a dark one of ethnic exclusion (i.e. forced isolation of Jewish communities) and government-sanctioned segregation (i.e. communities of color in the United States). Little thought is given to the true meaning of the word and how people ended up in ghettoes to begin with when it’s used. Along the same lines of a proposition made by Robert B. Moore in his essay “Racist Stereotyping in the English Language,” I’d like to make a little proposal of my own. Moore challenges typical methods of teaching and discussing the history of the United States by making his readers take a closer look at those who were oppressed in order to create it. He suggests that the “next time [we] write about slavery or read about it, try transposing all “slaves” into ‘African people held in captivity,’ ‘Black people forced to work for no pay,’ or ‘African people stolen from their families and societies.’” Imagine if we replaced “ghetto” with something like “the only place African-American men (who had fought for their country’s freedom from totalitarianism) and their families were allowed to live due to redlining, racist real estate monopolies, and restrictive covenants” when used as a noun. Or what about “a type of behavior I associate with the poor even though I don’t know anyone who lives in the projects or has had to struggle to make ends meet”/ “a style of dress that I associate with poor blacks and Latinos becauseI am racist and classist deep down inside, but cover it up by using this word instead of saying what I really mean because it’s more socially acceptable” when used as an adjective. So that’s a little harsh, but it would put a whole new spin on saying something or someone was “ghetto,” now wouldn’t it? It might make people think twice before applying it to any and everything that they deem as sub-par.

Another reason I would feel a tad bit uncomfortable clothing myself in “ghetto chic” is the manner in which the style itself is carried out. There is a hint of irony in middle to upper-middle class young people co-opting a style of dress that by name alone is associated with those who find themselves limited by their economically precarious existence. Clothing that is now used to evoke “ghetto fabulous-ness” is based on a style that has its own history. It was a style of adornment that came about as a result of the poverty itself. Considering that the poor found it challenging to invest in forms of real wealth, liquid commodities like clothing became currency, a sign that even though some may be on the bottom when compared to the rest of society, they could take styles (like jewelry and “preppy” fashion) from those who had solid wealth and make it their own. So I would feel strange wearing a style that originated as a way to prove oneself as worthy and equal in the face of adversity when I don’t face challenges in the same way as a result of my economic privilege. Continue reading

Rise of the Culture Vultures

by Racialicious special correspondent Latoya Peterson

“Toya is more Asian than Asian people!”

My Chinese-Canadian coworker laughs. I, on the other hand, am chastened. I quickly make an excuse, and withdraw from the conversation.

Now, to some people in my circle, my coworker’s off-the-cuff accolade would have been something to be proud of. Otaku (or anime/manga fans to the uninitiated) live for compliments like those. We pepper our speech with common Japanese phrases, bend our minds around the playing of Go, memorize major Japanese holidays and customs, and refer to each other using the proper honorifics.

However, to me, the mad lust for some Otaku to approximate Japanese culture seems like just another way to fetishize another culture. My friends who have been into anime and manga longer than I have regale me with tales of Asian fetishes and white people who claim to be “eggs” – white on the outside, but yellow on the inside. My friend Hae, who is Korean, is viewed with abject lust by the younger boys at the ‘Con. She remembers the early 90s, before anime became mainstream, and she was followed around by freaky boys who wanted to take her picture or stroke her hair. (And for those in the know, Hae is not a cosplayer. She was simply an Asian girl walking in a land of Asiaphillia.)

That being the case, I have watched the evolution of Gwen Stefani with quite a bit of interest. As a teen rebelling from a hip-hop saturated reality, I was ushered into the world of alternative rock by No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom.” The pink haired, bindi sporting rock siren embodied a complete and total escape from bland suburban girlhood and her fashion sense was an interesting mix of Jamaican, Southeast Asian, and So-Cal culture. A decade passes and Gwen reinvents herself again, cavorting around in Alice and Wonderland get-ups and cooing about Harajuku style on multiple tracks. Completely co-opting Harajuku fashion, Gwen remade herself as the Great Gaijin Guru – importing Asian fashion and style, manifested in the pimping of the four Japanese girls who tour with her as a flesh and blood underscore to her credibility.

At first, the shout-out to Japanese style was cool – finally, we little Otaku had a voice. Fruits style was suddenly cool in America. And while I was underwhelmed at her fashion choices – as an onee-kei girl to the core, Harajuku fashion just wasn’t my thing – overall, I was pleased that someone so prominent on the world’s stage gave props to yet another cool aspect of our increasingly global culture.

However, after reading her interview in Bust Magazine’s “Love Issue” – which included yet another rehash of “Margaret Cho needs to stop talking shit and do the research!” – I started to wonder: how many of us anime-loving Otaku are actually appropriating Asian culture? We greedily accost people from Japan, asking to practice our elementary Japanese, eat sushi, ramen, and Pocky by the pound and consume everything we can find about Japanese culture. Are we “respecting the culture” as Gwen asserts, or are we trying to force our beliefs about Japanese culture onto Japanese reality? Continue reading

Should white people make black music?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Yes, that headline is meant to be provocative. Who counts as “white”? Is there such a thing as “black” music? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, of course. But lately I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion on this topic, particularly when it comes to so-called “blue-eyed soul.”

L.A. Times music critic Ann Powers recently wrote of Joss Stone:

If there’s one fault on “Introducing,” it’s that Stone’s comfort level with that tradition remains too high. Throughout the album, she sings in a voice she learned from those soul albums; the lilt of coastal England never surfaces. Crafting a new self from beloved popular cultural sources, Stone is very much of her generation; it’s her sincerity, her refusal to see that identity as artificial, that singles her out.

That led Salon’s music blog, Audiofile, to ask: Does Joss Stone sound too black?

But isn’t the argument that only certain types of people have the “right” to sing certain types of music hopelessly reductive? Should only poor white people play punk music? Do Northern-born blacks have less purchase on the blues than those born in the South? Can someone from California honestly play bluegrass? The truth may be distasteful, but scholars and critics like Nick Tosches, Eric Lott and Greil Marcus have shown that, for better or worse (and I firmly say it’s the former), popular culture is one long story of cultural alchemy. Call it exchange, call it theft, call it what you will, but without the interplay between cultures, our world would be radically different.

Continue reading