Jezebel, a Gawker Media blog that writes about women’s interests, recently published an article titled Victoria’s Secret’s Racist Garbage Is Just Asking for a Boycott. The article complains about the Karlie Kloss warrior’s headdress bikini costume worn at a fashion show last week as well as other absurd slights against Native Americans such as No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” music video and Paul Frank’s “neon pow-wow” fashion night which was also called “racist” by the Beyond Buckskin Native American Fashion blog.
Culturally Insensitive? Yes. Racist? No.
This broad catch-all definition of ‘racism’ has got to go. These same crusaders against insensitivity must surely realize how incredibly insensitive they are being to victims of true racism throughout history and even today and how counterproductive they are being to having a serious and productive dialogue about race by conflating it with culture and sensitivity.
Racism is the idea that one ethnic group is measurably superior to another or that certain ethnicities are less than human. It is rooted in hatred of others based on their ethnic heritage. Reducing ‘racism’ to also mean ‘cultural insensitivity’ completely destroys the meaning and power of the word and the concept and thus erodes our ability to combat it.
Real examples of racism range from everything from the Holocaust and slavery to the lone black kid in my high school who was bet up on several occasions by gangs of white kids just because he was black and they thought that was all the justification they needed.
I found it especially strange that the No Doubt Looking Hot music video was castigated so thoroughly for being racist. The video seemed to me to be more of an absurdist reference to 70’s era Westerns and “Cowboys & Indians” movies rather than a direct attempt to characterize Native American culture. It reminded me very much of Muse’s Knights of Cydonia video (which included many more layers of pop culture references and no images of Native Americans). So as culturally insensitive as the era of old Westerns may have been, are artists supposed to pretend that it never existed and cannot reference, remix, and re-imagine it as an art form? If anything, the lyrics to the song and the message that they send to people are the more offensive part of the song:
Do you think I’m looking hot?
Do you think this hits the spot?
How is this looking on me, looking on me?
Go ahead and stare
And take a picture please, if you need, yeah
I think that says it all
Feel it, so fake it
I dare that you take it
One eye in the mirror
Put on my venere
Could have sworn
It’s a sure shot
Are you under my convey
Go ahead and stare at my ragamuffin
But I digress…
When the Native American sensitivity movement started to catch on a decade ago, while sympathetic to the movement, I found it somewhat befuddling how selective people’s offense at cultural insensitivity was. People were extra-sensitive to how the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, and Washington Redskins were portraying Native Americans. My sister’s high school, Niles West, went as far as to change their mascot from the ‘Indians’ to the ‘Wolves’ in an attempt to be more culturally sensitive. But what about the Minnesota Vikings, the Michigan State Spartans, and USC Trojans? They get a pass? Surely there are people of Danish, Norwegian, Greek, and Italian descent who are offended by the silly, historically inaccurate, and cartoonish portrayals of their ethnic heritage across high schools and colleges throughout America.
Perhaps it is the passage of time that lessens the sensitivity to cultural stereotypes. You don’t see many people crying outrage over ancient Greek themed toga parties. Try as I might, I could not find any record of outrage from Egyptians over Steve Martin’s ‘King Tut’ comedy song. Every Halloween, people dress as stereotypes of Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Egyptians, and other ethnic specific costumes. The level of outrage over these costumes is usually directly related to how far removed a current culture struggling to gain acceptance in American society is with the culture being stereotyped.
I am sure there are many people in these groups mentioned who are proud of their cultural heritage and are offended by ancient cultural stereotypes of their people. I wouldn’t doubt if some of my friends are among them. But, the level of offence doesn’t seem to be enough to spark outrage or launch a push-back movement. Maybe these offenses have caused a few eye-rolls or sharp verbal barbs, but I haven’t seen evidence of much more.
So why do I mention levels of sensitivity to stereotypes in this article about racism? I do this to demonstrate that there are disproportionate reactions to various cultural slights. And while I am willing to accept without quibble the fact that these disproportionate reactions exist, I am not willing to accept the notion that offensiveness behavior born out of insensitivity and ignorance is equal to racism. In fact, I am even willing to say that mislabeling offensive behavior as racist is not only insensitive to true victims of racism, it is counterproductive to progress on that front.
Let me provide you with an example from my own personal experience.
While I was in the U.S. Air Force the United States invaded Iraq. This was a very politically unpopular war and service members received a great deal of hate and disrespect as a result. Friends of mine were even spat upon when they were seen off base in uniform. Time and time again service members were confronted, assaulted, and disrespected by members of a public they were willing to sacrifice their lives to defend and they took the insults with grace and dignity.
A push-back movement from friends and family of service members and even the media began to emerge. This movement focused its efforts on humanizing military members, helping the public understand why they chose to serve, and creating an atmosphere of understanding and differentiation between choosing to wear the uniform and temporary political conflicts. From my perspective, this proved to be somewhat effective and disrespect for and hatred of service members began to subside as the public overall became more sympathetic to their plight.
On thing I have never heard much outrage or push-back over, however, is military fashion.
In fashion, I see people wear military chevrons, dog-tags, and actual hand-me-down military uniforms. As a veteran (happy Veteran’s Day everyone) this somewhat disgusts me. The military uniform – and its accouterments – is a symbol of the sacrifices that a select group of people who earn the right to wear it have made and continue to make, often even the ultimate sacrifice.
Chevrons of rank reflect years and even decades of hard work and sacrifice to earn the right to wear them in service. When people slap a Chief Master Sergeant patch on a tee-shirt, upside-down, no less, it is kind of a slap in the face to the men and women who dedicated the better part of their lives for the privileged to wear that symbol.
Dog tags as fashion accessories are especially offensive. These devices have been used to identify hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers throughout numerous military conflicts. In fact, I call them “dead tags.” When service members receive and are required to wear their dog tags, it is the ultimate reminder to them that they may be called upon to give their lives in service. When a service member dies, their remaining dog tag is that final symbol and reminder of the sacrifice they made. Watch this touching scene from Saving Private Ryan to get an idea of how serious of a symbol these items can be.
Turning military clothing and symbols into fashion accessory is extremely disrespectful to those who have died wearing the uniform and those who have sacrificed so much for the right to wear it (Of course, I am not talking about people who wear unit patches or a relative’s BDU jacket or dog tags out of respect).
So, where is the outrage over this?
While I am offended when I see people wearing articles of the military uniform as mere fashion accessories, I do not think those people hate the military or veterans. I just think the are either ignorant of what they are doing or willfully insensitive to how disrespectful it is. I don’t go out of my way to speak out about this or do much beyond roll my eyes and sometimes cringe. On occasion, I have asked close friends why they wore certain military fashion accessories and explained to them that it may be unintentionally emotionally hurtful to service members and friends and families of service members who have died in the service.
However, progress on the humanization and acceptance of military service members has been better made on other other fronts rather than expressing outrage over military fashion. In fact, I believe if that had become the focal point of the discussion very little would have actually been accomplished towards improving the public’s perception of and respect for men and women in uniform. Why? Because fashion insensitivity to military members is not an expression of nor is it the roots of hatred towards military members. The two are not related!
Using cultural clichés as fashion accessories is insensitive. It disrespects many people’s struggle for acceptance into American society and it disrespects cultural traditions and identities of loved ones. People have a right to be offended. People should speak up about it and a productive dialog should ensue. But calling such ignorant slights “racist” is counterproductive to the cause. It conflates the slightly more trivial with the much more serious and makes it difficult to discuss and deal with varying levels of problems in society. And worst of all, it is incredibly disrespectful to people who have first hand suffered outrageous acts of racism and hatred or have loved ones and ancestors who died because someone thought their ethnicity was sub-human and inferior.
Racism is so much more than being offensive. Ethnic identity is so much more than just cultural identity. Real racism is ongoing today and needs to be dealt with and diminished. If your purpose is to fight the good fight and diminish the amount of hatred and and improve equality then you are better off fighting this fight on other fronts rather than crying ‘racist’ over an artist’s insensitivity to someone’s culture. Not only does it derail the conversation, but it teaches people the wrong idea that as long as we are improving our culturally sensitivity towards people racism will also be on the decline. One has little to do with the other, and the sooner we stop conflating the message the sooner progress can be made.