monday eyeroll (UPDATED)

A boutique in Colorado sent me the lookbook for some items they'll be carrying this fall. As many brands often do, they were seeking press from bloggers. The lookbook contained the following images: 

Sigh. Completely not okay.

Here is the letter I sent them:
Hello (redacted),
Thanks so much for thinking of me, and for sending me your lookbook. Unfortunately I have to admit that I am extremely disappointed in the use of a headdress and Native imagery on your models. This blatant display of reappropriation is at best, culturally ignorant and insensitive, and at worst, is a cringeworthy example of racist caricature.  
As a half-white female, I don't know that it is my place to comment on issues surrounding Native peoples. But since this landed in my inbox, I do feel compelled to speak up (while acknowledging that I do come from a place of racial privilege). Additionally, marginalized people should not have to bear the sole responsibility for speaking up against their oppression; as white people, we should listen to them and help educate others about their concerns when we can, as best we can.  
The use of the headdress, poorly-rendered war paint, and teepees in your look do not add any significant creative aspects in your lookbook - these symbols are too loaded with history to ever be considered something other than what they are. By devaluing these symbols into fashion accessories (on white models, no less), you have effectively presented an unfortunate stereotype of a culture that to this day, continues to endure hardships that you and I will never know. That fact is very important! White people have historically treated Native Americans with absolute cruelty, what could possibly give us the right to steal what few traditions they have left? It is not "exotic" or "edgy" or "ironic". You are not "paying homage" to their history. You are making a racist mockery of their culture. And for what? To sell some Helmut Lang sweaters? 
Please consider these articles, written by Native writers, on this very topic:
I am offering you the benefit of the doubt; it is entirely possible that you were ignorant of these issues before you proceeded with the photoshoot, and genuinely had no desire to offend anyone. Still, ignorance is no excuse. I urge you to reconsider and remove these photos. Read the links I have sent you. Please do the right thing. 
As said in my letter, I completely recognize that is it not my place to speak for Native Americans, nor am I even the most educated about the issues nor the most eloquent feminist writer. But this fell into my lap and I felt that to not speak up would go against my deepest-held beliefs. As my dear friend Jenna once said so succinctly, nothing about fashion is so ~conceptual~ that it is "above" problematicism. Fashion is not a weapon to be used to oppress those that are continually marginalized. Fashion is not creative or expressive when it uses racial stereotypes.  This really needs to stop already. It is almost 2013! We need to move forward and consider what we do, and how it relates to the history many of us benefit from, and how we can to heal those wounds.

Will update this post if they happen to reply. And thanks to @verylemonade for providing me with the links to the important articles cited above.

Update 11/5/12 9:58 CST: The boutique has replied to me. Here is their email. I almost want to add a trigger warning for blatant racial ignorance. The bolded portions are those that are particularly troublesome:
Dear Meagan,
I was forwarded your email by (redacted), our Director of Marketing and PR, and was absolutely saddened by your interpretation and judgement of our recent lookbook shoot.  I am so incredibly sorry that you felt we were mocking Native American culture; this could not be farther from our intentions, which I will explain below.  Please do not be so quick to make conclusions or negative judgements of others, however, without knowing our own background or context.
These were not fake tipis or a fake landscape made as a "set" for our shoot... We shot our lookbook in our home state of Colorado at the Plains Conservation Center, which is a non-profit that is south east of Denver, which educates children and the public about Native American culture and causes.  Our thinking was, why not take advantage of the fact that Native design is so trendy in fashion right now, and utilize that in order to help promote this non-profit and bring awareness to actual Native causes that people can donate to.  We worked with the PCC on the shoot and it's concept, and we sent out PR on their behalf - that was essentially the trade arrangement we made with them.  They were very happy to have the support and were incredibly kind to us in return.
Additionally, one of our main staff who helped conceptualize the shoot and who was there on location is half Cherokee.  I myself absolutely love and adore Native American culture on a very real level, and have practiced certain aspects of Native American religion since I was young.  My mother actually runs a non-profit that provides assistance to impoverished members of the local Native American community in Boulder, Colorado, and so I grew up around friends who were of Native American descent my whole life.  I loved the idea of honoring this culture in our shoot because it rang a very deep, personal bell with me.  If you find this insulting that I, as a Caucasian woman, would revere another culture that I feel a connection to, then I am sorry you have such a negative, non-inclusive perspective.
In short, our intention was to honor and pay homage to the culture in a very real way, not in a way that was meant to be exploitative or hokey.  I can understand if you are upset that a white model was wearing a headdress, and if this in particular was what offended you, I do apologize.  That is a touchy thing, which I understand, however let me further explain the art direction/higher-level concept behind the whole shoot in defense of that choice....  The concept for the shoot was 'early homesteaders meet Natives on the plains, in a re-imagined, fictional time period that has elements of both past and future,' as a representation of the fact that modern American culture is a melding of many different cultures.  As such, our female model played the part of both sides - Caucasian homesteader, and Native American.  Again, this was not meant to mock or create a caricature, but rather pay homage to the plains on which our store actually sits, and the mixed cultures from which it came.
In any event, once again I apologize if our shoot offended you.  Please know that our intention was only to honor the culture and to even help promote its causes in a very real and authentic way.  Hopefully you can choose to be open-minded and culturally inclusive enough to see that.
I haven't replied yet, because I received this email today and haven't had time to finish my reply. As soon as its finished and sent to them, I will post it here. Quickly though, I'd like to challenge you all to take a look at Cultural Appropriation Bingo and see how many arguments in this email fit into it!

They have also asked me to remove the images that I have posted here. I have refused to do so. They originally solicited me for press, it is unreasonable for them to ask me to take down the photos because I  am discussing their problematicism. To remove the images would do a disservice to this discourse and insulates them against deserved criticism.

UPDATE 7:21PM 11/6/12: So while the nation (and myself!) are enthralled by the election returns, the boutique has removed their photos from their website and issued a statement of apology:

We are deeply apologetic if any images from our recent lookbook photo shoot were construed to be culturally insensitive. Our intentions could not have been farther from this, and came from a positive place. We had hoped that working with the Plains Conservation Center would help to build awareness for this local non-profit; we did not intend to hurt or offend a culture for which we have a deep respect and admiration."
We mean this from the bottom of our heart. No one involved ever intended to hurt, offend, disrespect, mock or insult anyone. We have removed the images from our website and will not be using them moving forward.

It's worth nothing that Goldyn is still using images of the models posed in front the teepees.

Thanks to Jenna at Jezebel for writing about this and thanks to everyone that commented and retweeted and facebooked! Sometimes the internet can be used for doing good things.

UPDATE 4:43 PM 11/6/12: The boutique has now removed the images of models posing in front of the teepees as well.


mary van note said...

kudos on sending them such a thoughtful and stern response.

WelcomeToTheMoon said...

Deepest respect and thankfulness to you for being clear and straight forward in your response. There needs to be more voices like yours. Your character is strong and I want to give you a hundred high fives.

Meagan said...

I approve of this sooooooo much it's not even funny. way to be totally awesome.

im said...

Nice job! You were respectful and clear. I hope they will heed your advice. Cultural Appropriation is not Fashionable.

our lady of whatever said...

Homesteaders meet Natives on the plains...reimagined...
but they like Native peoples so it's all cool -- just be ~open-minded~

Ria said...

"Our thinking was why not take advantage.." The moment that thought process entered their heads they should have hit stop. It's amazing to me how truly unaware people are of things like this.

Madeline said...

very articulate email, well done to standing up to things. the whole settlers meeting natives scenario probably isn't one you wanna relive, not that I claim to be any expert on American history in general the picture is pretty clear one. please do post your follow up!

Andrea B. said...

"Native design is so trendy in fashion right now" - isn't THAT enough of a reason to go a different direction? Going with an idea because the market is saturated with it already does not show any creativity of any kind. And that bullshit argument about raising awareness for Native American charities or whatever? Really. A white girl with a headdress on is going to inspire all kinds of research into Native culture and giving to their charities. Yeah. To these people Native culture means headdresses. And teepees. And fashion shoot ideas. Honoring a culture by doing a photo shoot WITH NO ONE WHO IS OF THAT CULTURE? Yeah, give yourself a real pat on the back for that one. I'm sure Native Americans everywhere feel real honored. God, people are so unimaginative. If the intention had truly been to honor Native Americans it would have been awesome to see only Native women in a fashion spread that had nothing to do with exploiting their culture. Instead some lady in Colorado wants to get on a trendy bandwagon and justifies every aspect of this shoot with "I like Indians!"
I say good for you for not removing the photos. I take this whole thing to heart as a reminder that you can't always be right. It's easy to make mistakes, we all do. But the real show of maturity, of humanity, is when we're able to admit we were wrong.

Fat Aus said...

I think your response was great and they should be really embarrassed by their email. They look like clueless jerks and I'm glad you posted this.

Izumi said...

Thank you Meagan for posting this.
Cultural appropriation is the BIGGEST issue right now. It makes me furious to see how blatantly ignorant some people are. They have no rights to say it is OK when they have not endured the hardships of the oppressed. I myself, as a minority feel offended by these. There is certainly too much ties with racism and fashion going on right now. The D&G collection with severed heads of a WOC, the headdress hipster trend, the 'boho' bindi.
It is definitely time for a change. Soon these headdresses and bindis will be disposable, another trend marking 2012 and there is NO HOUNOUR there.

Hvit said...

Hurrah for you! These issues are so difficult- your response was so perfectly worded. It's so great that they took it down too!

Jess said...

well done for this, you are ace. how embarrassing and clueless of that woman! love how she accuses YOU of being closed-minded. awkwardddd? x

.William McLure said...

This is the most ridiculous. I can't believe i'm actually reading this............ I suppose you are deeply disappointed during Halloween.

meagan said...

thanks everyone for your comments:

@william mclure actually yeah i am, and it's not just me, a LOT of people are disappointed during halloween. check out this website to see why wearing a costumized version of someone else's culture is not funny or cute or okay: http://lissawriting.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/racism-think/

im said...

" If you find this insulting that I, as a Caucasian woman, would revere another culture that I feel a connection to, then I am sorry you have such a negative, non-inclusive perspective."

As a "Caucasian woman" myself, this is repulsive. Like ugggghhh I have no real words to express how this makes me feel.

"Hopefully you can choose to be open-minded and culturally inclusive enough to see that."

I am so happy they removed all the pictures...

Magnet said...

"Native design is so trendy in fashion right now" - KILL ME NOW.

I agree with you and everyone. I love the fact that you stayed true to yourself and kept everything up Meagan. You are amazing, I'm so glad people like you are blogging, you and others like yourself is what this planet needs more of. No wonder you're one of my favourite bloggers.

Witco sica said...

Hau Mitakuyapi, Cante wasteya nape ciyuzapelo. 'Hello Relatives, I take your hand in friendship.' This is a common Lakota greeting. The literal meaning is 'with a good heart I take your hand'. This is how we greet you, with respect and dignity which we expect in return. We call you Relative because of our concept of Mitakuye Oyasin, 'We are All Related' meaning everything and everyone. So we include everyone and everything with reverence because of our understanding of how everything is interconnected. So, when we see these things we understand that the wasicu (a shortened form which literally means 'they are so greedy that they take even the fat') is still greedy for more and don't think of others... Honor us by asking first and we will be more than happy to help and educate. This is what I was taught... an Oglala Lakota enrolled tribal member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Bianca said...

Just in time for thanksgiving...

Gosh, their response was totally the "but I have friends who are native american" ....HAVING "FRIENDS" OF OTHER RACES DOESN'T MAKE YOU THEIR RACE

THE END..dumbass...

Glad they took it down! PROUD OF YOU MEAGAN

iwasthesea.com said...

So, so much respect for you for sending those emails. The fashion world needs more voices like yours.