Do Door Knockers Make You Black?

A few months ago Kreayshawn scorched the internet with the rapid spread of her video for Gucci Gucci.

Kreayshawn on the red carpet at this year's VMAs

Lot’s of people were HELLA mad at Kreayshawn. They were like, “This bitch thinks appropriating black culture & style is OK!”  And hella other people were like, “That bitch is from the DEEP EAST she came by it honestly!”

I couldn’t decide what I thought. I have a hard time with the issue of cultural appropriation. On the one hand, obviously it’s fucked up for people with privilege to exploit the culture of the oppressed for profit.  But since race and class are social constructions, how do we decide who is a legit member of the oppressed group and who isn’t? And once we decide who is legit and who isn’t, how do we decide what is an appropriate way to exchange culture between groups?

No one remembers Icy Blu, but I bought her cassette single and often wonder WTF happened to her

Because for real, if people were only ever allowed to dress in styles that originated in their ancestral culture, I’d be wearing like, African wax prints*  and Hungarian folk-embroidery every day. Which actually sounds awesome but that’s beside the point. The point is, it’s a problem that oppressed cultures are exploited for profit, and yet as soon as we begin the conversation about how to address that problem, we end up in a heap at the bottom of a very slippery slope.

I think the crux of the problem lies in power imbalance.  The idea is that because white people hold more social power, any cultural exchange between their group and others becomes either exploitation or forced assimilation, depending on which way the valve is turned. But that can’t be the last word, can it? CAN IT?

Gwen outdoes herself with a Chola tank AND a Bindi all at the same time

I DON’T KNOW!  I mean, class definitely has something to do with it, like when Amy Winehouse wore door knockers I was like, “She’s Armenian that’s like, the Black People of Europe, it’s cool.”

Was Amy Winehouse even Armenian?

But when Kim K does it, I’m like, “Ugh just cuz she got a fat ass she thinks it’s cool to take our shit!”

Kim Kardashian is definitely Armenian

But then, WTF do I mean by “Our Shit?” I am from Montclair. No one in Montclair rocked door knockers. At the same time, the people in Montclair made it pretty clear to me that I was not like them and that the group I in fact belonged to was the one that rocked door knockers. And I’m definitely black, and black people are definitely the original popularizers of giant door-knockers. Also, my white MOM wore bamboo earrings in the ’80s. If she was an appropriator does that make me an appropriator, even though I’m black and she’s not? Do door knockers make you black?

Here I am rocking giant gold hoops, door-knocker derivitives, at a casino in Reno. This was taken right before some old white dude told me I looked like a "wild Indian." I poured my beer on him. Don't worry, it was free. Also sorry Michael for using another picture of myself in the blog.

It’s this kind of identity unravelling that makes me want to hide in a hole. Did I choose anything? Or is my NorCal hippie/hyphy teenager/disco glam/minimalist chic aesthetic just a result of being shoved around by various social phenomena?

Let’s talk about it IBC! I’d like to think our readers are all at least beyond the whole, “Why can’t I wear this giant Indian headdress, it totally matches my Toms which I specifically bought to help provide shoes to poor Indian children in South America” stupidity. Where do we go with the conversation after that?

When is it cool to rock some shit that is not part of the dress in your culture of origin? Are there choices for designers and stylists beyond the extremes of ignoring all extra-cultural influences and exploiting otherness for profit? Can we locate the thin line between inspiration and appropriation? What do you think of the collections below?

L.A.M.B. Spring 2011 African prints

Gaultier Fall 2009 Menswear Black Panthers

Rodarte Fall 2010 Juarez/border town/factory workers

Inspired, exploitive, or something else?

Love

Carrie

*Except African wax prints actually originated in Indonesia and were a product of both indigenous Indonesian and Dutch colonial textile manufacturers. Later on African designers would design the prints for manufacture in Indonesia.

About Carrie Leilam Love

i love words, babies, and shoes better than everything.

30 comments

  1. msjacks

    I’m having a hard time with the fact that you seem to have opened the criteria up pretty widely; based on the photos (but not so much the content), I’m kind of getting a vibe about the culturally appropriative earrings being, like, all giant hoop earrings. I grew up in the rural South around women who dressed like this: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/f/f0/Bestofdp75.jpg/220px-Bestofdp75.jpg
    And therefore, I spend a lot of time out in public wearing earrings that touch my shoulders, because I spent hours staring at this album cover as a child and wanting to look Exactly Like It.

    I do like this piece, though. It’s funny and snarky in all the right places, and it asks interesting questions. Now I’m trying to figure out exactly what constitutes door knockers. Amy Winehouse’s seem more like straight up door knockers to me, and Kreayshawn (or however the fuck you spell it) and Kim Kardashian’s seem more door knocker-derivative. Yours just seem like plain ol’ big hoops.

    I definitely remember the white trash ladies around me in Taz shirts and sweatpants wearing door knockers in the 80’s, but those three collections seem like a whole ‘nother level of fucked up from that.

    • carrieleilamlove

      Hi msjacks,

      I love that picture of Dolly Parton you linked to. I was using door knockers as an example, the specifics of what qualifies or not isn’t really what it’s all about for me. I do agree that “giant hoops” are different than “door knockers” and have roots in lots of cultures outside of black culture.

      But this is exactly what my frustration is with this whole issue — it seems like the conversation always ends up being about a specific item — eagle feathers, door knockers, keffiyeh scarves — and the specific groups and individuals that can and can’t wear them. Before you know it you’re hella heated over an argument about whether or not black people were the first ones to air-brush Jordans when the real problem is that black culture is being exploited, and that all poor people are being exploited, and that’s why anyone’s talking about it or pissed off in the first place.

      Also I have to say that I find the term “white trash” really offensive. I know that often people use terms like that when they identify as part of the indicated group — the whole “why is it ok/not ok for black people to call each other nigga” thing is a big example — so I don’t know if that’s why you’re using it or what but calling a group of human beings “trash” makes me feel queasy inside.

      Love
      Carrie

      Love

      • msjacks

        I self-identify as “white trash” or having grown up that way or whatever, and def feel a reclamation of the word. I’ve had it thrown against me. I get what you’re saying but also like, don’t assume the worst of me.

        Peace

      • carrieleilamlove

        Gotcha. The interwebs are tough. It’s a public space so I feel like I gotta be conservative until otherwise indicated, you know? I am pro-reclamation I just didn’t know where you were coming from with it. And regardless, I appreciate you coming to the conversation smart and interested.

        Love
        Carrie

  2. blevit

    I started to write a comment, but I just can’t put in to words when it feels like an homage and when it feels like thievery. SUCH a complex phenomena.

    • carrieleilamlove

      Right? RIGHT?! It’s hella hard. Where is the line? I don’t know. I know there are easy targets like Gwen that are obviously out of line, but so hard to get past “I know it when I see it” on this topic.

  3. QueerAsTre

    Interesting, thought provoking article. I grew up in Queens, NY, and the wearing of “door-knockers” was not designated by race. I’d say it was culturally-specific to those interested in hip-hop fashion, and from my perspective that was generally lower-income folks of many different races. In my neighborhood, like all things hip-hop, the wearing of door-knockers was black-inspired and white-acquired, but a pair of big gold knockers was a uniform must-have accessory for girls of any race who wanted to visibly project their street credentials.

    Thinking about celebrities though, I’m wondering to what extent these pop icons have control over their fashion choices. I imagine that the demographics of their stylists may vary greatly. Like, maybe Celebrity-X grew up white in a weathy suburban town, but if her stylist’s inspiration is drawn from experience in an oppressed subculture, would it be appropriate for the celebrity to turn down fashion advice based on its cultural content? “I can’t wear that, it looks too black.” Can you imagine?

    • carrieleilamlove

      Hi QueerAs —

      This was one of the arguments a lot of people were making in Kreayshawn’s defense, that the culture of hip-hop and black culture are not the same thing, and that hip-hop belongs to everyone.

      I feel like so often the argument, “it’s not about race it’s about class/gender/culture” serves to disqualify race as a factor in these issues, and while obvs that other stuff is important, like my homeboy Cornell West says: Race like, totally Matters and stuff.

      I’m not saying every non-black person who wears door knockers or shell toes or rope chains (showing my age like whoa!) is an evil racist appropriator. I just think it matters that black people invented hip-hop. But I don’t think that means no one else gets to be a part of it.

      And I do think it’s appropriate for a celebrity, or any other person to turn down style advice based on cultural or any other content. If I were a pop star and my stylist wanted to put me in a Geisha outfit (cough- nicki minaj – cough) I would refuse.

      Love
      Carrie

  4. Caleb

    “The earrings I wear are called dolphins” – YoYo

    • carrieleilamlove

      “I need a girl with extensions in her hair, and bamboo earrings, at least two pair” — L.adies L.ove C.ool J.ames

  5. Malila

    I have been struggling with this topic for a while now and it is really hard to put my feelings into words. But I’ll give it a shot. It’s not just the appropriation of Black culture and style that gets under my skin. There are layers upon layers of other race issues, things we cant quite put our fingers on, things that usually don’t get discussed but itch our souls. And then people like Kreayshawn, come on the scene and break open the doors of dialogue, specifically with her friend’s use of the “N” word.

    The deeper issue in my opinion is people who use Black style and culture as a means of exploitation. They may like our style (Gewn, Amy), our money (Kreashawn) or even our men (Kim), but do not portray any sincerity or connection to the Black experience. Of course we all know people who can totally identify with a culture other than their own. We understand them and can feel their sincere connection. But the question is how can we gauge the authenticity of people who we don’t know? That is the hard part. When you find out let me know. Until then I will continue to get that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I pass a group of panhandling White Rastas (with dogs) and get confused about their connection between the Black experience, Rastafarian-ism, homelessness and dogs.

    • carrieleilamlove

      Hi Malila —

      Yep. The impossibility of gauging authenticity is the whole reason I wrote this. Since race doesn’t actually exist, I don’t know if there will ever be a fool-proof method. I also, will continue to get uncomfortable when I see people being exploitive or cavalier with someone else’s culture. The good (ish?) news is that we don’t actually have to solve this problem. It will dissappear when racism does. The bad news is I don’t have a good plan for ending racism:-/

  6. Brilliant post. I’m glad you brought up the slippery slope factor. I feel like it comes up in fiction writing too–when people write outside their race, they’re often accused of appropriating. But if it’s not okay to write outside your identity group, then fiction can’t even exist, only autobiography. Similarly, fashion is a creative act, and pulls its ideas from the world.

    I agree with blevit that appropriation can be, like porn, one of those “I know it when I see it” things (except sometimes I don’t). But while I can’t figure out where to draw the line, I think the important thing is access. If Rodarte is taking its cue from Juarez (and I have to admit I kind of love that outfit), we–and Rodarte–should also be looking for designers who are ACTUALLY FROM JUAREZ. In other words, appropriators shouldn’t be the only ones telling the stories of the appropriated.

    • carrieleilamlove

      YES! I think that privileging authentic voices is a brilliant strategy. Like, I’m not totally mad at Dave Eggers for “What is the What?” but COME ON PUBLISHING INDUSTRY. If you really give a shit, how about publishing and promoting a writer actually from the Sudan? Oh right. You don’t actually give a shit.

  7. to me, the biggest difference is that human authenticity is submissive, and industry [which is defined by its lack of human interaction e.g. the ford assembly line] is dominant and tells. and that affects these musicians who are suddenly producing on an industrial scale.

    this is the gwen stefani i like. this is also the song i named my first zine after. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRper8EKzEw&feature=related . just saying, she made that dress. i stopped being interested when she started with the japanese stuff, which seemed to come out of nowhere, unlike the bindi & chola interest, which at least had direct relationships to her boyfriend & hometown.

    i think that appropriation on a small scale can be pure, humble inspiration. on an industrial scale it becomes a different beast. i really like and am excited by the idea of privileging authentic voices as a critical component to equally expanding cultural norms and think it works sometimes but its like hitting a wall of industry with an authentic mallet. get a chip off the wall, but get dust in the eye at the same time. but you know, many chips make a block. . .

    • carrieleilamlove

      Gaby, I heart ur brainz, and not just in a zombie way. we may never agree on ms. stefani but i respect yer head. chip by chip. dust be damned.

  8. Do plaid shirts make you white? Maybe I missed something, skipped a sentence somewhere but it seems like we’re segregating fashion choice here. Since when do we have to do an authenticity check before getting dressed? Isn’t this a fashion blog? Isn’t fashion about making bold, daring choices? If someone wants to wear dream catcher earrings they bought at F21 is that a great insult to Native Americans or a celebration of something beautiful that their culture contributed to the world? (Actually it’s more disconcerting that they bought them at F21 but another time….) I constantly see my style and my culture adorning people who are not me. Does that mean that I’m inauthentic when I decided to try something I saw on someone else? Am I exploiting that culture or celebrating it? Who can tell me where I land on the authenticity scale? I need to know so that I don’t offend my neighbors. Where is your local Office of Judgement located? I just thought they looked good. If you’re telling me I look stupid or that I’m insulting black culture with door knockers swinging from my albescent ears I’ll give them to the next black girl I see….but I kind of love them. Especially worn with my plaid shirt, chola jeans and oxfords. Long live the melting pot!

    • carrieleilamlove

      It seems you have missed more than a sentence somewhere. You have missed the point entirely. I’m trying to investigate the very questions you are asking, without judgement. Your tirade however feels pretty judgy and you clearly already know what you think about it. Check out msjacks or gaby’s comments above for an example of how to disagree respectfully.

      Also: “If someone wants to wear dream catcher earrings they bought at F21 is that a great insult to Native Americans or a celebration of something beautiful that their culture contributed to the world?” <——— I suggest you ask a Native American, or several. Unless you feel qualified to just answer that question based on your own desires without consulting one.

      Love
      Carrie

  9. Bobby D

    Thanks for the article Carrie, that was a good read. You covered all the latent points, so I thought I’d share something that came to my mind as I was reading. My first reaction lined up with yours: my brain was torn as to whether a non-black person wearing door-knockers is appropriating culture, or whether it is a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. But after some thought I realized that, for me, the issue zero’s in on the idea of how cultures are conquered.

    History books like to glorify Alexander the Great for spreading Helenistic culture, and how beneficial that was. The merits of the bloody swath Big Al left in the Mediterranean aside, I’ve always wondered how many things we think of as Greek are actually someone else’s idea? Is there some Egyptian form of irrigation that some historian decided was just too good to give any one else credit for? Or to bring it back to fashion, is there some “Greek” necklace sitting in some museum in Paris right now that was fashioned by an Indian craftsman or woman? When a culture is conquered, inevitably there will be a mixing of the two and the people writing history get to decide who gets the credit. I imagine that some things get assimilated and are taken credit for, wheras the more exotic things are turned into toys. The dream catcher is actually an excellent example for this, and I actually think I can guess how native americans would react to someone wearing those kind of earings. Today, in 2011, I think most would not care…in fact I’m sure most of the dreamcatchers around today are made by native americans who are just trying to make a living. and so we have these awesome pieces of art hanging on our children’s windows, from our ears, etc. and maybe that’s okay. maybe. hundreds of years ago I have a feelings the use of a sacred religious object in such a manner would be responded to in a strong, perhaps violent manner tho. Because belittling someone’s culture is a big deal, because it says that you’re bettter than them. And when you’re better than someone, well then I guess it’s okay to take their land. Oh did I just wipe out your village? I’d be happy to relocate you to this crappy piece of land here. The fact is we conquered the Native Americans, and I don’t need to throw words like genocide at you to make the point that if most Native Americans are okay with dream catcher earings, it’s because we’ve put them in a position where they can’t do anything about it if they did.

    African Americans are in a similar position. Racism has slipped beneath the surface, so glaring issues can be ignored by citing that we are a melting pot where differences don’t matter anymore. Differences DO matter. Especially when those differnces include things like how the privatization of the prison system, along with the criminalization of the lifestyles of many minorities is slowly making the Thirteenth Amendment grow sickly in it’s Congressional bed. For instance, A HUGE number of people accused of drug crimes are imprisoned today, wheras fifty years ago, and in most other parts of the world, people are given counseling and other forms of treatment. A disproportionite number of people of color are arrested for drug crimes as well. Haha Carrie you’re getting me riled up! Anyhow, I could go on like that for a while, but let me get to my point.

    At the end of the day people like to wear pretty stuff no matter where it’s from. and that’s okay. But what’s not okay is the possiblity that two hundred years from now we might be reading a fashion magazine talking about some white girl who popularized the use of door-knocker earings. What’s not okay is a group of people being in a position where people submit not because of choice, but because society has not given them any other choice.

    • carrieleilamlove

      Thanks for reading Bobby. I am noticing a trend in the comments — a lot of people seem to be asserting some version of the “power imbalance” argument I outline in the post.

      “What’s not okay is a group of people being in a position where people submit not because of choice, but because society has not given them any other choice.” <— well stated. I totally agree that this is the reason it's a problem, but I'm still at a loss for any "policy recommendations." On an individual level, maybe there are none, and maybe that's ok, because personal relationships can overcome this type of disagreement through conversation and personal growth.

      But on an institutional/political level — I'm thinking for example, of the Gay Marriage movement's use of the slogan "Let Freedom Ring" — what are the cultural consequences?

  10. Carrie, my great grandmother was Native American. I thought it was ok to sound off here. Clearly you’re affected. Perhaps I should have focused on celebrities appropriating black culture but I not being a celebrity wrote about what I know. I was trying to respond to a few of the questions you ended your post with.

    “When is it cool to rock some shit that is not part of the dress in your culture of origin? Are there choices for designers and stylists beyond the extremes of ignoring all extra-cultural influences and exploiting otherness for profit? Can we locate the thin line between inspiration and appropriation?”

    But got distracted when I realized that you might not think I look cool bc I’m Native American wearing door knockers…..So my comment was mainly composed of questions. Maybe you’d care to answer one before being “judgy” yourself?

    • carrieleilamlove

      Ok.

      Do plaid shirts make you white?
      No. Privilege, power, perceived race, and a host of other factors combine to create whiteness. A plaid shirt could be one of them.

      Since when do we have to do an authenticity check before getting dressed?
      Since this is a part of American History: http://media.onsugar.com/files/ons3/407/4079287/46_2009/76abf3f839093dd6_al-jolson.jpg Just to be clear, I’m not saying wearing things from another culture amounts to blackface. I’m saying the historical reality of blackface creates a cultural present in which we must consider the social meaning and impact of our sartorial choices.

      Isn’t this a fashion blog?
      Yes it is also a culture and social commentary blog.

      Isn’t fashion about making bold, daring choices?
      To me, and I’m not speaking for my cohorts here as they may have their own ideas, fashion is about self expression. I think there are lots of ways to define that further and I’m always interested in that conversation.

      If someone wants to wear dream catcher earrings they bought at F21 is that a great insult to Native Americans or a celebration of something beautiful that their culture contributed to the world?
      I don’t know. I personally would privilege the feelings of people in the Native American community on this issue. You’re telling me you are one. Duly Noted. As I further consider my feelings on this issue, I will think about your opinion as well those of others in your ethnic community.

      I constantly see my style and my culture adorning people who are not me. <—- Question for you: by "my style and my culture" do you mean Native American or the cultural traditions of the other 15/16ths of your heritage?

      Does that mean that I’m inauthentic when I decided to try something I saw on someone else?
      Not necessarily. I don't know. That's the point of the post. I'm thinking about it.

      Am I exploiting that culture or celebrating it?
      See above.

      Who can tell me where I land on the authenticity scale?
      Ibid.

      I need to know so that I don’t offend my neighbors. Where is your local Office of Judgement located?
      The same place everyone else's is. In board rooms and OTB storefronts. In break rooms and classrooms and kitchens and certainly, interminably, increasingly, in the comment sections of blog posts about intractable social disagreements.

      Also, I'm mostly continuing to engage in this discussion because regardless of your tone & defensiveness, the positions you take and the questions you ask are exactly what I'm hoping to increase discussion about through this post. But honestly, if you can't dial up the respectful disagreement and dial down the sarcasm & extratextual presumptions (i.e. "you might not think I look cool") it's not going to be worth it to continue the conversation. For either of us. Or anyone else who might be reading.

      Love
      Carrie

      • Honestly I feel like this discussion is not welcome anymore especially because you might be trying to dictate how I am supposed to write in what I thought was an open forum. No disrepect intended with my sarcasm but I’ll try to dial it down for your sake. I mean, this is a tough topic to discuss and I think my heavy sarcasm is an attempt to lighten what I consider an intense conversation. You asked “When is it cool to rock some shit that is not part of the dress in your culture of origin?” So my “extratextual presumption” was just using your language to ponder how my earring choices are being interpreted i.e. “you might not think it’s cool”. Also, I’m not sure how to read your sarcasm regarding my 15/16ths of heritage. Is that not enough for you? Either way I see it as your shit is door knockers, my shit is dream catchers.

        The point is, we’re both perturbed by the same everyday sight of deeply meaningful symbols of our cultural heritages (see how I’m not quantifying exactly how black or white you are here?) on people who might not necessarily comprehend their full meaning. When door knocker/dream catcher earrings are proliferated as a result of fashion trend that, to me, is appropriation. But what if instead of going to F21, I go down to the corner fair-trade boutique and buy the jewelry from a local member of the ethnic community the fashion world is ripping off? That would be different right? Or is that exploitation?

      • carrieleilamlove

        I kind of want to stop the conversation too because I feel like now instead of sarcasm you’re being condescending i.e. “for your sake.” BUT I can’t resist and also I feel like with this last comment we are finally getting somewhere in terms of content.

        I think the conversation about where we buy these kinds of items (F21 vs. Fair Trade) and what our relationship is to the culture they originate in is valuable and can really lead somewhere at least in terms of where we decided to draw the line personally. I do think those considerations make a difference.

        Also I really appreciate the turn towards an allied discussion/acknowledgement of common ground i.e. “we’re both perturbed.”

        On sarcasm: it’s an art, and often serves to do the opposite of “lighten the mood” when not mitigated with a fair dose of obvious humility. I can definitely appreciate the fact though that “this is a tough topic to discuss” and that people, being human, all have different ways of coping with that kind of difficulty and sometimes those ways clash. Also, while the fraction itself may seem accusatory, I was not being sarcastic with that question. That was a real question.

        If I had wanted to talk about whether or not I think you’re Native-American-Enough, I would have started a conversation about privilege, about your perceived race, about your connection to and relationship with the culture beyond your genetic relationship to your great grandmother. I don’t know anything about you beyond the fact that you have a Native American Great Grandmother and that you identify as Native American, and those two things alone do not negate or confirm legitimate Native-Americanness in my view. You could have blue skin and be raised and loved by a Native American Great Grandmother and it would make sense for you to live as a part of that culture. One of the reasons I defended Kreayshawn (I’m coming out now, I didn’t really go into this in the post) is because I think if she grew up surrounded by people speaking Black English it would be inauthentic of her to speak anything else.

        That said it doesn’t really matter what is enough for me. I am not the decider. What matters is if it’s enough for you, and maybe also if it’s enough for others in your cultural group. Personally, my great grandmother was Jewish, but I would feel weird getting a Hebrew tattoo or something. No one has ever called me a Jesus killer or accused me of hoarding money. I do not have relatives (that I know of) living in a war-torn country and I never had to deal with the specter of the holocaust in all my elders eyes. I never had the joy of lighting a menorah or feeling spiritually renewed at Yom Kippur. For those reasons, I do not call myself a Jew.

        You have your reasons for identifying as Native American and that is your choice. Depending on what those reasons are, I can give an opinion on your choice, but you still get to decide. The ability to decide, I have to add, automatically puts you in a position of relative privilege, just like my “woe is me, am I black or ain’t I” is a relative position of privilege in my own racial/cultural group.

        Also it’s not an open forum. It’s a website with four editors who fully and unabashedly reserve the right to set guidelines for discussion. You’ve reminded me that we should post something about what those are.

        Also I don’t consider doorknockers to be a “deep meaningful cultural symbol”😉

        Love
        Carrie

  11. Michael von Braithwaite

    Wow. There’s a lot going on here, but I think I’ll stick to the actual post topic. First, YOU CAN USE AS MANY PHOTOS OF YOURSELF AS YOU LIKE! I always like them.

    Second, this is obviously a complex and difficult subject. Cultural cross-pollination is actually a beautiful thing in a lot of ways. That there are elements of everyone’s culture that can appeal to people from a completely different culture on some level speaks to the universality and nuance of human experience. As an artist, I find myself drawn to all manner of aesthetics that come from cultures other than my own European, white American, Southern, mixed-class grab bag. The colors used by Guatemalan peasant women, the jewelry worn by 19th Century Egyptian women, and the rugged fabrics employed by Polar explorers during the Victorian era all get me going. However, while I might choose to incorporate a small element from the Guatemalan repertoire to my own repertoire, I would never snipe the whole look, nor would I necessarily wear an item that would overtly communicate that I have a felt ownership of Guatemalan culture. I don’t. I just like the innovative ways in which the Mayans were stylistically inspired by their tropical environments and how that’s trickled down through the centuries and I like bold, bright colors.

    For me, ownership is the key word. Inspiration and ownership are two different things. I know that I look white as fuck and I (again, this is ME) would feel costumed and inauthentic taking on the markers of a culture I have no direct, lived experience with and with which I in no way belong visually. So that’s MY way of determining what I do. Where this becomes complicated, as you note Carrie, is when we start making assumptions based on how people look. When it comes down to it, nobody knows anything about anyone on sight alone. You can make a best guess and sometimes it’s pretty clear and sometimes it’s not and a lot of the time people don’t think very deeply about what stereotypes and messages they’re putting out into the world, but that’s always true of humans.

    Isn’t the real problem of appropriation one of ownership and economics? When people are making money off of shit they “took” from another culture and claiming it as their own, that’s the problem. Right? Here we are infighting about who’s wearing what on the streets of various cities instead of asking who’s making money on the shit that everyone’s buying. Is a company owned by a rich white guy or a group of rich white guys making money off of moccasins made in China by people being drastically underpaid?

    The problem is the reality that there are cultures who have been abused, taken advantage of, disrespected, and maligned and there are those that haven’t. So when we (insert your preferred “we” here) take on markers of those cultures, are we saying “Thank you! This is so inspirational!” or are we simply consuming what we want, which is really what’s always happened–take without regard for context, history, or significance. What does it mean when culturally, spiritually, or racially significant items get boiled down to items of consumption? I mean, really what does it mean for all of us?

  12. I’m really glad Carrie started this dialogue, and for what people have pointed out thusfar because in many ways I think a big part of the problem (besides consumption, as Michael so eloquently outlined above) is thoughtlessness. Privileged people (and I count myself among this class) are particularly prone to ignoring the reality that everything we depend on and/or consume is connected and involves human hands in one way or another: the roads we drive on, the food we eat, the clothes we wear. Also, culture is made–and the people with the power need to be extra-aware of that because, frankly, power in (white, privileged, heteronormative) dominant culture is all about taking and conquering without consideration for consequence. Almost everyone knows what it’s like to be trampled on in some way: women do, transgender people do, queer people do, poor people do, people of color do. There are endless combinations therein, and most of us move in the world in ways that align us with the same dominant culture that also oppresses us. And some of us were born in a better situation than others. It’s not a contest, but my point is that sorting out what’s been handed to you and what hasn’t is a great exercise for everyone, and then entering into discussion about what part you might play in the disenfranchisement of others is your duty to yourself and your fellow citizens. Not for the sake of shame, or atonement, or even completely and selflessly for the benefit of others, but for your own sake. Because one day someone else might need to do the same for you. So back to the idea of appropriation. I think menswear doesn’t so often involve cross-racial/cultural signifiers, so I don’t face this challenge as often. But I do see it a lot across class, especially with the glorification of the working class in men’s fashion. Sometimes this is done offensively and potentially detrimentally (as in the Levi’s “We are all Workers” campaign I wrote about last year). My rule personally is similar to Michael’s. I wear blue jeans of course and yes, work shirts, too, on occasion. I like flannel, and heritage brands. But I don’t present myself as something I’m not by overloading thoughtlessly on working-class cultural signifiers from a place of privilege, and when I see something that turns my stomach in its marketing and commodification of someone else’s experience, I don’t swallow it. We need to respect each other and ourselves, and I think that in our hearts we know what’s right–and when we don’t, we know how to find out, if we’d only try.

  13. Michael von Braithwaite

    I would also like to add, hopefully augmenting Thomas’ point, that I think one reason people get so up in arms when it comes to appropriation is that often times, people take from a culture without having any actual respect for it. While being from the South is not the same as, say, being a person of color, I can say that MY feathers were ruffled when urban “hipsters” went through that “white trash” phase several years ago. Not because of what they were wearing, but because these same people were the ones who said ignorant, offensive shit about the culture in which I was raised while simultaneously taking on its markers. That’s the hypocrisy of appropriation. Maybe that’s what people of color feel when they see white people wearing the markers of their culture while simultaneously (and no doubt often times inadvertently) saying and doing things that play into a dominant culture of systemic racism.

    This is not to say that it’s not possible that some of those white people taking on said markers aren’t actually coming from places like “the DEEP EAST.” Just like some of those urban “hipsters” were actually FROM a “white trash” background and were doing a reclamation thing. It’s not about what you observe in others. It’s about what you observe in yourself. You gotta start with the man in the mirror (that’s for you, CLL!).

    And I think it’s about holding our consumerist culture accountable for its part in further entrenching problematic cycles.

    Now. I’m off to buy something from the Land’s End sale! What? It’s my WASP-y heritage.

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