Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Urban Outfitters Sells "Navajo Panties" Yeah for Appropriation

Aren't hipsters just precious?  Yeah it's trendy to appropriate from marginalized people, and it helps them build cred for their belief in ironic racism.  One must after all be fashionable, and that is far more important than any proprietary claim that the Navajo people have on their own name and culture.  The U.S. did after all expend so much effort to steal their land, destroy their families, and out right murder and rape them, so what's one little pair of panties in comparison right?  Yep, that's rationalizing appropriation and the ongoing colonization of the Navajo people.
[T]he Navajo Nation owns 12 trademarks on the use of the word "Navajo," which specifically cover clothing and online retail.

Apparently, the attorney general of the Navajo Nation has contacted Urban Outfitters in the past about the issue, but nothing has been resolved.

According to the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990 and the Federal Trade Commission Act, it's illegal to say something is Native American produced when it's not.

The Department of the Interior states: "It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1 million" (source)
Aside from the legal issues involved in what Urban Outfitters has chosen to do, there are the moral implications to consider.  This is theft, appropriation and it is outright exploitation.  Urban Outfitters is not associated with the Navajo people, and therefore whatever profit that is made from this line will not go towards supporting the tribe.  We already know that First Nations people consist of some of the poorest people in North America, specifically because of colonization and thus profiting from them through appropriation not only furthers the project of neo-colonialism, it continues to impoverish them.  What room will be there to market real Navajo inspired clothing items, if the market is flooded with this nonsense?  If the Navajo people had inked a deal with Urban Outfitters it would be one thing, but this amounts to a company deciding that it is has the right to take without asking for personal gain.

Items like "Navajo" panties and the extremely ill advised "Navajo flask" are culturally insensitive.  Despite the fact that the Navajo people have outlawed alcohol on their reservations, alcoholism continues to be a problem, and of course with alcoholism, come things like domestic violence, illness and death. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that every single Navajo person is an alcoholic, but pointing out that alcoholism continues to have a devastating effect on the tribe. Alcoholism is a disease which kills on many levels, and so creating a "Navajo flask," and selling it as a trendy item, makes light of the ongoing struggles the community has with alcoholism, while furthering the myth that the Navajo people are all drunks. This works as a two for one deal on active oppression.  As for the panties, underwear labeled Navajo is without doubt reductive.  It could only have been made worse by creating Navajo toilet paper. 

To me, even more troublesome than the fact that these items were created in the first place, is fact that people will now walk down the street wearing them, absolutely oblivious to the role they have played in furthering racism, and legitimizing this kind of appropriation. This items will become one more ubiquitous symbol of the right of colonial forces and Whiteness to steal at will.  On a daily basis, you can already see White women running around with chopsticks in their hair, supposedly inspired African clothing, and of course the ever popular keffiyeh scarf, what's one more thing right? Well, one more thing is enough; it is fucking enough.  Dear hispters, you don't have a right to our cultures because you think it's trendy or cool.  It sickens me that Whiteness feels that it has the right to pick and choose pieces of our various cultures like vultures, while they would no anything to avoid the harm their actions causes us.  Not for one minute would the majority of White people consider changing their race if it were possible to do so, so let's not pretend that this sudden quest to appropriate from cultures of colour has anything to do with appreciating us.