How did Michelle Williams end up on the cover of a magazine in redface?
I often feel invisible. When I tell people that I grew up on an Aboriginal reserve, they look at me like Iâ€™m a mythical unicorn, even though more than a million people in Canada identify themselves as First Nations, MĂ©tis or Inuit. I probably wouldnâ€™t have thought we existed either if I hadnâ€™t grown up on the Six Nations reserve in Southwestern Ontario. Back then, I only saw people who vaguely looked like me on CBCâ€™s North of 60. It was slim pickings as far as cultural references were concerned.
But today, instead of homages rooted in realism like the CBC offered in the â€™90s, all I see in the mass market is a shiny commercial version of â€śNative Americansâ€ť rooted in stereotypes from westerns, Disney cartoons and sports mascots.
Last November, No Doubt released their â€śLooking Hotâ€ť video, which showed Gwen Stefani writhing in a teeny buckskin outfit and headdress. The video was pulled after the public let the band know that it wasnâ€™t, in fact, hot (or â€śhella goodâ€ť). No Doubt issued the requisite apology, telling their fans that â€śbeing hurtful to anyone is simply not who we are.â€ť Within a few weeks, Victoriaâ€™s Secret found itself in the same situation when it dressed Karlie Kloss in a bikini and full headdress for the runway grand finaleâ€”even though the headdress is revered and intended for respected leaders. Victoriaâ€™s Secret apologized and agreed to remove the look from the broadcast version of its show.
Jeremy Scottâ€”whose slave-inspired â€śshackleâ€ť sneakers were pulled by Adidas last Juneâ€”released a questionable spring collection (for Adidas Originals) that features distinctly cartoonish references to totem-pole carvings. To Pacific Northwest Aboriginals, totems symbolize the important history of community and family. To Jeremy Scott, they seem to signify nothing more than a funky new pattern for A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora to wear.
Itâ€™s disheartening that so few people are aware that headdresses, bonnets and totem poles are still spiritually relevant to vibrant Native cultures. To glamorizeâ€”or make light ofâ€”the misuse of dated and cartoonish images is to support a legacy of genocide and racism. The after-the-fact apologies arenâ€™t enough. While groups like No Doubt may say they never meant to â€śoffend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history,â€ť they did.
How can anyone assume that referencing â€śIndianâ€ť motifs without care or caution wouldnâ€™t be hurtful, trivial or, indeed, racist? I was dumbstruck when I saw the spring/ summer issue of AnOther Magazine. The biannual fashion and culture publication photographed Michelle Williams wearing black braids, a sad expression and what could arguably be considered redface. (Imagine your reaction if sheâ€™d been wearing blackface and cornrows.) In response to an immediate backlash, the magazine echoed those other apologies, writing â€śWhile we recognize the seriousness of this debate, the image in question in no way intends to mimic, trivialize or stereotype any particular ethnic group or culture.â€ť
Learn more about fashion's portrayal of Aboriginals on the next page...