Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Zebras, "tribal" prints: It's Afrika!

So, over on Feministing, Samhita wrote an article about the new Afrika line of clothing by American Apparel. Under the headline: "Jungle prints are back," the blogger wrote:

And this time to add to the classiness, they are being marketed as the "Afrika" collection. Please get ready to see self proclaimed, post-racist, ironic hipsters near you wearing this fall trend. You know because this isn't totally racist or anything. This company will never cease to amaze me, in every way.
I'm siding with Samhita on this one. While I would not use the word racist to describe what American Apparel has done wrong, I would use exotification, "othering," cultural commodification and, well, stupidity. Plenty of Feministing commenters disagree, however, with lots getting stuck on the idea that wearing animal print is inherently racially offensive. No one is saying that. The problem is not zebra print. The problem is distilling a continent of many countries, cultures, languages and peoples down to its wildlife and faux tribal print. There is a tired "dark continent" stereotype at the heart of the American Apparel clothing line's name and marketing. And THAT is a problem.

What other continent is viewed this way? When was the last time you saw a fashion collection of brown bear fur and Celtic prints labeled "Europe!" No one would buy a pan-European marketing ploy that blended Irish culture with prints from animals found in upper Scandinavia and Russia. Such a thing would be foolish. But no one can be bothered to know the difference between Zambia and Mauritania. Africa becomes just a mush of dark tribal folk and wild animals, and suffers the indignity of insensitive marketing all the time. Asia, too, but that's another post. (Someone needs to stop Gwen Stefani before she appropriates again.)

What do you think? Is American Apparel's new Afrika line simply an homage or typical hipster cultural tone deafness? (Be sure to check out the comments over on Feministing. A link is at the top of this post.)

Are we really that different?

From Reuters:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain has gained huge support among white women since naming Sarah Palin as his running mate and now leads Democrat Barack Obama among those voters, according to a survey published on Tuesday.

The Washington Post/ABC News poll found that much of McCain's surge in the polls since the Republican National Convention is attributable to the shift in support among white women.

The race for the White House is now a virtual tie, with Obama at 47 percent support of registered voters and McCain at 46 percent, the poll found.

Before the Democratic National Convention in late August, Obama held an 8 percentage point lead among white women voters, 50 percent to 42 percent, but after the Republican convention in early September, McCain was ahead by 12 points among white women, 53 percent to 41 percent, the poll found. Read more...

I am suspicious of this poll, but I can't help feeling sad about what it may mean. I am not naive (anymore). If this election has taught me anything, it is that there are women, even on on my political side of things, whose world views are so different from mine that we might as well be from different planets. I know that there are many conservative women who share Sarah Palin's views. I know there are radical feminists whose ideals say voting for any woman, even one whose views are anti-woman, is better than voting for a man. Thing is, though, I always thought those views represented the extreme right and left. I thought for most women, voting was not about identity politics. I thought the majority of women would value their rights and those of other women too much to vote for John "women don't need equal pay" McCain and Sarah "victims ought to pay for their own rape kits"

Maybe I'm immune to Palin's charms. I didn't "get" the big speech--y'know the firey oratory that Palin gave at the Republican National Convention before deciding she will not be vetted by a media that is not "deferential." But a lot of women were moved. The Washington Post provided a roundup of female feedback, much of it positive:

Nagel, a retired schoolteacher from Detroit, had anticipated few events as eagerly as she did Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's speech Wednesday night. Ever since Sen. John McCain named her his running mate Friday, Nagel had watched clips of Palin on television, read stories about her in the newspaper, and learned enough about her family -- the new baby, the pregnant daughter, the daughter's boyfriend -- to feel, Nagel said, "like we've known each other for 20 years." All that remained, she said, was a formal introduction.

"You judge a book by its cover, and we've been waiting for that chance with her," said Nagel, dressed in a hockey jersey like the rest of the Michigan delegation. "We want to see how tall she is, if she wears heels, how she wears her hair. That's stuff us Republican women need to know."

When Palin finally did make her introduction, Nagel approved of what she saw -- and heard. Nagel once coached a high school speech and debate team, and she liked how Palin defended her family without sounding defensive. She stood up on her red folding chair at the end of Palin's speech and leaned in to take a picture. "She started with the family and then moved on, just like everybody should do," Nagel shouted above the roar of the crowd. "She's a woman, and she showed she's tough. She attacked Obama. She touched on all the issues. We love her."


Linda Beebe, 59, a voter in Michigan, had been leaning toward Sen. Barack Obama before Palin's speech on Wednesday night. Before the Alaska governor had even finished speaking, though, Beebe had changed her mind.

"Could we drop off McCain and just have her?" Beebe said in a telephone interview. "She's talking about the things that concern myself and people I know. I know there's a big world out there, but if we're not healthy at home, how can we help outside home? She sounds pretty good."

Beebe said she did not like the negative attacks on Obama; she also said she did not particularly like McCain. "But I kind of like her," Beebe said. "She sounds like she wants to help Americans bring home the type of lifestyle we've had and help build up America."

I am confused by this praise that has nothing to do with policies or accomplishments. Just because someone looks like you, talks like your neighbors and says that a thing is true doesn't mean it is true. There are a lot of women (and men) that I like that I don't want to see leading the country. Aren't we suffering right now because of that sort of thinking?

Maybe I'm just jealous because Palin's speech--quite obviously--wasn't intended for women like me. What I heard from Sarah Palin is a woman asserting the supremacy of white motherhood (Yeah, hockey moms!). I heard a white person using demeaning and sarcastic language to denigrate the accomplishments of a black person (accomplishments, by the way, that far exceed her own). I heard a Republican using coded references to "small towns" and "small town values" to deliver the same exclusionary "people like us" message the party has been selling to stoke fear of brown folk and gays and other outsiders for decades. I heard a politician courting division and us vs. them thinking. I heard a tool of the McCain campaign sneer at community organizers--people who work in the trenches of their neighborhoods, particularly in urban areas, to make life better. (Now this one really got me. Growing up, my parents were active in our community. My dad worked with the Human Relations Commission, the local citizens group and other organizations. I've learned through family research that my great uncle risked his life and that of his family to house Freedom Riders in the 60s. I think working for the community is valuable and character-building. I think it is especially admirable when you give up a shot at big money to do something for other people. Sarah Palin thinks those ideals are worthy of derision. Okay.) It doesn't matter that the person spouting this rhetoric is a fellow Proud Vagina American (TM Samantha Bee). I am left cold and disgusted.

John McCain's record on women's rights is pitiful. The addition of Sarah Palin to his ticket makes it even worse. How can it be that so many women are willing to look past the facts to vote for the Republican ticket? Identity politics? Racism? Are women low information voters? What? WHAT? What is it?

Once again during this election I am left marveling at the chasm between white women voters and women like me. Are we really that different or is this more media manipulation?


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