Tunic: Swap — Pants: Punjammies — Sandals: Dansko — Hat and ring: Target — Necklace: Thrifted — Earrings: Nervous System
I’ve been thinking a lot about garments and cultural appropriation again, largely fueled by this article about Punjammies and marketing that I linked to a couple of weeks ago. So-called “tribal” prints and garments have been trendy for a while now–Feministing talked about them back in 2008, and there was the Urban Outfitters “Navajo” grossness back in 2010–and I’ve made a point not to purchase items that are marketed with “tribal” in the name or similar “othering” language in the marketing. But what about other cases?
Is it okay if the garments aren’t marketed as “tribal” but have similar designs and influences? Is it okay if the manufacturers clearly cite their inspiration and give (unspecified) royalties to those that inspired them? Is it okay if I know the names for the different garments, patterns, and symbols on the clothes I choose to buy? Is it okay for me to wear something that’s made by a Native designer rather than Forever 21?
At some point, though, I have to ask myself whether I’m really just playing hot-and-cold in the form of “how much appropriation can I get away with and not feel bad about myself?” As a self-involved person of privilege, I have that privileged tendency to make everything about myself, when really–this isn’t about me. It’s about the people who are hurt and disenfranchised when their garments, patterns, and symbols are appropriated by those who stigmatized them for having those garments, patterns, and symbols in the first place.
I can hear you saying “DUH,” and I know this is pretty Privilege 101 stuff, but I guess this is the best place I have for working it out, and it’s an ongoing process. There’s no Comprehensive Guide for Poor Confused White Girls that says, “If you wear A, B, and C garments, that’s appropriative for now and all time, but D, E, and F garments are a-OK for now and all time, and if you follow these rules you will never ever be racist or exploitative.” People from the same cultural background may disagree on appropriation based on class, hometown, religion, and the thousands of other factors that go into, you know, making people different from each other. Even marginalized people, who non-marginalized people tend to assume all have some sort of spooky hivemind together.
Folks don’t talk about cultural appropriation as some series of traps for white people. They talk about it because it hurts them. I always want to take care to consider the harm I am doing in the world, intentionally or not. “I didn’t mean to” only means so much after a while. Privilege means I could walk away from this conversation and never think about it again, and it probably wouldn’t impact my life at all. I don’t see the signs and symbols of my heritage being taken out of context by people who think they’re being fashionable or edgy.
I don’t think it’s possible to navigate life without making mistakes, but if those mistakes have serious racial and cultural implications, it’s important for me to pay attention when somebody says that what I’m doing hurts them. Otherwise, what am I doing here?