Friday, January 13, 2012

Insensitive Knick-Knack Week

Your Tucson coverage continues. It's a safe bet that any of the well-shot dramatic landscape photos were taken by one of two astrophysicists. Close-ups of poodles, cacti, these I can take some credit for.

In honor of Insensitive Knick-Knack Week, I will return to the earrings-and-racial-insensitivity topic. Because I sure do like them, I hope it's not somehow offensive for me to go around wearing these. (Cheapness Studies note: at the store where I got them in Tucson, they went for about $20 less than indicated here.)

For the link-averse, they are a pair of lab-created (that is, faux) white-opal drop earrings, set in silver not-quite-filigree, but kind of like that. They are this fabulous mix of space-age, iridescent, and geometric, yet, even with all that going on, non-clunky. They are also made-in-the-USA-by-Native-Americans, which is either Good or Bad for the community in question - good because it's supporting them economically, bad because it's the appropriation (see more posts than I could possibly link to here) of their styles by pale outsiders. Styles that come from peoples displaced so that my peoples could, in turn, displace on over from whichever pogroms. (Banality of the day: the history of oppression is complicated.)

While this particular pair of earrings does not look (to me, at least) distinctly Southwestern or Native-artisan enough to be identifiable as such, if they did, they'd be on-trend. Various forms of "cowboys-and-Indians"-inspired fashions have been so-very-now for a while. Thus Tavi's "Twin Peaks" motif, thus all the designer-collab Pendleton... and thus the (mildly NSFW) "Navajo panties" scandal, wherein trendy chain stores sell undergarments and less racy attire as well, using the Navajo name, without, needless to say, Navajo approval. My earrings are evidently genuine Navajo-produced. Less problematic than a "Navajo" thong made in China, but not entirely OK.

But it's iffy when it is and isn't OK to take fashion inspiration from groups other than your own. I don't want to usurp anyone else's traditional dress, but on a certain level, everything is appropriation. Even dressing generically "American." If I wear pearl studs, and not for a need-to-look conservative occasion, I feel a bit silly, because my family wouldn't have been, still wouldn't be, accepted in a Lilly Pulitzer world. (And it would sure piss off Simon Doonan.) Anything preppy will come across as social-climbing, in a Ralph Lauren-né-Lifshitz kind of way. And it's similar with "heritage" fashions. And of course, any hip-hop-inspired anything, on someone as pale as I am, presents obvious awkwardness.

But problems arise if I dress "Jewish." I have the ethnicity for Hasidic garb, but not the piety. Dressing "Israeli," when I've only ever lived in New York, Chicago, Paris, and Princeton, and have not served in the IDF, doesn't sit right. And even if I went for the look derogatorily labelled as "JAP," this would not be authentic, because that's more of a suburbs-of-NY aesthetic, and is not something I actually grew up with. I am not from Ugg-North Face-French manicure country, not that there's anything wrong with that. The only authentic option is for me to wear a lot of black, or to wear whatever the street-fashion blogs dictate, because that's "very New York."

The answer, however, might be less complicated than I'm making it out to be. If you're conceiving of your personal style, it's best to do so in terms that have nothing to do with ethnicity, because head-to-toe of any culture or subculture's look, even your own, will, at best, look costumey. There's no not borrowing. Just stay away from symbols that you know evoke specific racist histories, and, if alerted to the fact that something you're wearing does, send it to the landfill, or better yet, donate it to the relevant museum with exhibits on intolerance of the group in question.

12 comments:

Britta said...

Phoebe,
I wouldn't be too sensitive about it. The earrings are Navaho, not in some "this is how white people imagine Navaho stuff" but are actually Navaho, and, since you bought them from some Navaho people, then the people selling you them don't have a problem with you wearing them. In fact, my guess is they'd be far more annoyed by white people refusing to buy their stuff out of fear of being un-PC than the opposite, and I doubt any Navajo person you met would be in any way upset to see you wearing actual Navajo earrings you bought from some Navajo people (as long as you weren't, you know, dressing up as a "Navajo" person). The problem with Urban Outfitters is that it was some ignorant, totally imagined idea of Navajo prints made and sold by white people for white people, and so I don't think it's anywhere near like actually buying earrings.

Phoebe said...

It would seem that way, but the blog I link to expresses a range of views - some think it's offensive for anyone of, shall we say, my pallor to be wearing anything with a "native" vibe. And I get that - a WASP in Hasidic garb is something I'd find problematic, even as a definitive non-Hasid. Happily, these particular earrings don't look anything particular ethnically. But the question of appropriation is interesting and far more complex than it first might seem.

Britta said...

Skimming the other blog, it seems like the stuff they showed was pretty over the line offensive, like feather headresses, not like, wearing some native-made jewelry you bought from native people. I think that might be the difference between, say, dressing like a Hasid (which would be offensive if you aren't), and, I don't know, wearing a Hebrew coca-cola shirt you bought in Israel (which seems fairly innocuous to me). In general, unless it has some special religious or social significance, I think you're pretty safe with ethnic jewelry, since it's pretty subtle and, even if it reads "ethnic," it's ambiguous as to where it's from exactly. (In fact, that seems common with ethnic stuff. I have a Swiss blouse, which everyone assumes is Mexican or Latin American, and a Norwegian busserull (traditional male shirt) which people assume is South American or from Urban Outfitters :P )

Phoebe said...

Britta,

I basically agree - it really does come down to whether you've full-on adopted another group's garb, or whether you just... got dressed that morning. And I totally agree with the existence of this category of goods called "ethnic" that could come from just about anywhere - East, West, North, South. It's not a style I generally go for, but these earrings, especially when worn with jeans and a t-shirt, barely give off that vibe.

But I'm trying to find the comment somewhere there where someone claims not that they would mind a white person wearing a beaded bracelet, but that others would. It also isn't always going to be clear to outsiders what has significance - the keffiyeh trend comes to mind. And with "native," there's the added element of exploitation - arguably women in America today try a whole lot more to look "French" than "Navajo," but the historical relationship there is quite different. I mean, I've never noticed any blogs devoted to condemning the "appropriations" of any other group's traditional dress.

Britta said...

Phoebe,

I agree that exploitation is difference here that makes things more tricky--it's not like there isn't a long history of oppression and cultural appropriation that might make everyone more sensitive. I'd say though, first, not everyone in an entire ethnic group/country are going to agree on something, and no matter what you will find someone offended for some reason. If there's general consensus what you're doing is offensive, it probably is, but if it's one person on a blog...I guess you have to decide where to draw the line for yourself. (Personally, I would wear those earrings without hesitation, and probably most jewelry would be ok for me. I'd hesitate about wearing clothing with Navajo designs though, in part because it's not my style, and in part because I'd feel a little self-conscious or uncomfortable.) Secondly though, I think that buying earrings from Navajo people really makes a huge difference, especially since your wearing the earrings signals you supporting traditional(ish) Navajo handicrafts and Navajo jewelry-makers. I'd say buying something at non-exploitative prices sold by people to you for the purpose of you wearing them is really different from dressing in a "Navajo" costume, or buying UO "Navajo-themed" clothing (or even Navajo jewelry), which presumably benefits wealthy white people.

I was thinking about this myself, and recently I've seen lots of "Nordic-themed" underwear being sold at large chain stores, which I don't find offensive (nor, obviously, do I find Nordic sweaters sold or worn by anyone offensive), but if, say, UO started selling busserulls or bunads (the traditional female Norwegian dress), it would make me a little uncomfortable, even though by no one's standards are Norwegians in any way oppressed. If UO did start selling them and people with no connection to Norway and who didn't even know they were Norwegian were wearing them, I'd be a little annoyed. Conversely, if I saw anyone of any background wearing a busserull now, I'd know they'd been to Norway or maybe a Scandinavian import store and knew something about it, and I'd be flattered and think it was cool. (Obviously, not super comparable to the NA situation, since it's not like the US tried to wipe out all Norwegians and then offensively stereotyped Norwegians for profit for the next 100 plus years, but...I guess there's a mild analogy of cultural proprietariness here). I guess for me, it would be cultural commodification by large corporations which that was problematic.

Phoebe said...

"If UO did start selling them and people with no connection to Norway and who didn't even know they were Norwegian were wearing them, I'd be a little annoyed."

UO and the like already do this with plenty of traditional styles from Western countries. Breton-striped shirts can be purchased from just about every store these days, including Uniqlo - a Japanese company, with clothes for the most part if not entirely made in China. Fisherman sweaters that look possibly Irish, also everywhere. Swedish clogs were in style recently, maybe still are. And much of the Westernwear trend is in imitation of the "cowboy" end of things. And what is preppy if not an American take on British dress?

My sense, though, is that in these situations, when the country serving as inspiration is a Western, wealthy one, the problem that arises is more that those appropriating the look are thought to be social climbers. Thus Simon Doonan's beef with American Jews who dress like British aristocrats.

Of course, after Googling "traditional Norwegian dress," I see how this would be an odd find at UO. Even the blonder parts of Europe seem foreign to Americans. I suppose a key difference, though, is that there's such a thing as "dressing Scandinavian" in imitation of what modern-day Oslo hipster-minimalists might wear, which is its own thing. Whereas "dressing NA" tends to refer to traditional dress, and not to what modern-day Native Americans happen to wear.

PG said...

Agreed with Britta's metric of a meaningful distinction between wearing a bit of jewelry and going for something like a full headdress. There's a difference between dressing diversely with openness to all sorts of influences, and putting on a costume that's going to look like you might be mocking the culture from which it originates.

I'd add the further nuance that something that has a specifically religious meaning would probably be more irksome. I'm down with people wearing Indian jewelry and clothing, but the Gwen Stefani et al bindi trend of the 1990s annoyed the crap out of me. Rule of thumb, at least for religiously diverse cultures: if it's something you see both Muslims and Hindus in South Asia (or both Muslims and Christians in Egypt, or...) wearing, probably nothing religious about it and feel free to appropriate away.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Agreed with you and Britta that the best approach is not to wear head-to-toe any other culture's look.

Your metric has something to it, but doesn't strike me as practical. How are outsiders of that culture, who've never left, say, the state of Connecticut, going to have any idea what Muslims vs. Hindus wear in India. You're lucky if Americans know that there are Muslims as well as Hindus in India. I mean, I probably know more about the Middle East than most, if not all that much, and I have no idea what's worn only by Egyptian Christians, only by Egyptian Muslims. Take, for example, the keffiyeh. Some Israeli Jews certainly wear it, but it has particular symbolism that will be offensive to other Jews, Israeli and otherwise. Some Palestinians and other Arabs, meanwhile, will view a keffiyeh on white Christian Westerners as a nice act of solidarity, others as obnoxious cultural appropriation. Yet to the kid who sees one on St. Marks Place, then sees some hipsters walking around wearing them, and decides that this is a cool-looking scarf and he's gonna buy one, is any of this relevant? It's asking a lot for everyone to a) know that something is indeed "ethnic" and of which ethnicity, and b) to research its significance. A bindi, a tallis (should these ever be a fad), outsiders might not even know where to - or to - start Googling.

The swastika-or-not earrings were an extreme example, because what they appear to (but don't, but if they appear to, in a sense they actually do, because that's how it goes with symbols...) represent is so unequivocally problematic, as well as so well-known across the West and somewhat beyond.

PG said...

The metric probably isn't practical for someone who's just dressing in whatever's being sold at the Gap this winter, but if you're going to the trouble of buying somewhat less mainstream clothing, I don't think it asks overmuch to put some thought and maybe even research into it.

Then again, I pretty much buy all my clothes in America at bog standard dull places like the Gap, and my "ethnic" stuff is usually bought either in the country (eg jellaba from Morocco) or at least in the relevant ---town of a big city, so as with your earrings, someone of the ethnicity in question is actively selling me the item. At which point, if you're interested in knowing more about the item, there's someone right there who presumably knows at least a little about it, instead of being a random hipster at the cash register.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"if you're going to the trouble of buying somewhat less mainstream clothing, I don't think it asks overmuch to put some thought and maybe even research into it."

Then we disagree. Think of a tourist or local, a kid or adult, walking around St. Marks Place. Ooh, that looks neato! Here, vendor, are my $6. The customer may or may not have Internet access in his pocket, but would not think to start researching whatever the item is, because that's not how people behave. As they should - most clothes and accessories aren't going to offend, are not worthy of a research project.

And... there's no reason to think this type of shopper is going to Morocco or visiting the relevant ethnic enclaves. This is not someone who's spent much time/energy thinking how to avoid shopping at the GAP. This is someone who saw something interesting and likely cheap and thought, why not?

PG said...

If the only reason to want to know about what you're wearing is fear of some minority being all sensitive and getting offended about it, then admittedly one may as well play the odds. But I guess if one finds something interesting, it seems to me the natural reaction is to want to know more. Then again, I'm not a very visual person (part of the reason I'm happy to get most of my stuff from chain stores), so when I find things interesting (as opposed to "That's in a flattering cut and color and only $20, here's my card Ann Taylor saleslady") it's often based on there being something behind the surface.

Phoebe said...

PG,

You're assuming a customer who's approaching clothes-shopping as if it were an ethnographic project. Picture: person with no particular interest in history or global politics sees keffiyeh in generic trendy-stuff shop, not "ethnic" setting. Thinks, 'hey, I see a lot of those neat-looking scarves on neat-looking people.' Person hands over some not-significant amount of money, puts on scarf, goes about his day. It has not occurred to him to "know more" about the accessory.

I don't think visual-person or not is the divide here. (And most people, visually-oriented or not, are shopping at chains, right?) It's that you are dividing clothes into those that have a significance worth researching and those that serve a practical function. Most shoppers, I suspect, are barely thinking that an item has any broader significance, and wouldn't even begin to know where to look to find it if prompted to do so. Most won't see a difference between a keffiyeh and a casual scarf at H&M.