Daily Encounters and Activist Fatigue: The Girl with the Headdress Shirt

In activism, hipster headdress, social justice, urban outfitters by Adrienne K.24 Comments

Yesterday morning I walked into my 7:15 am “Total Body Workout” class at the gym, laughing and joking with my friend. As I turned to get my hand weights and mat, my gaze fell upon a girl in the class…wearing this shirt.

I sighed and wrinkled my nose, but turned back to my friend to continue our conversation. A few minutes before class started, my friend whispered “Did you see her shirt?! Wasn’t that on your blog?” I nodded in response.

As class went on, in between sweating through sit ups and lunges, I kept catching her reflection in the mirror behind me. Each time sent a twinge through my stomach, a quick moment of discomfort and unease. I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell her how I was feeling. But the problem was, even in rehearsals in my head, I couldn’t think of how to go about talking to her about the shirt.

 In the grand scheme of images on this blog, this particular shirt isn’t that bad. I mean, I can easily sit here and tear it apart–how it represents a stereotype, how the cartoon-izing (I think I just made that word up) of the headdress takes away from it’s sacredness and power, commodifying it and making it into a mass consumer good, how the blank, empty space where a head/face should be is representative of decontextualizing the headdress and separating it from the people and places where it belongs…but anyway, it’s not an image of an Indian holding aloft a beer bong, or a severed Indian head, or any number of other blatantly racist images. She wasn’t wearing a headdress. She was wearing a shirt that she probably bought at Urban Outfitters without a second thought.

But, as I’ve talked about so many times before, these seemingly benign images have just as much power to create and perpetuate negative stereotypes as the blatantly racist ones. Because of all these images she’s seen and encountered in her life, she probably never would have thought that the dark haired girl struggling with push ups in front of her was a Native person who might take offense to her shirt.

So, you’re probably wondering, what did I say? What did I do?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Even I, who day after day on this blog can spout the reasons why continued cultural appropriation and misrepresentations of our communities are wrong and harmful, couldn’t find the right words to tell an undergrad why her shirt is hurtful to me. 

Not that I’m always silent. I once made a Harvard student in an Indian costume at a local pizza place almost cry when I confronted him, and another time at a football tailgate I physically ripped a headdress off a huge guy’s head and stomped on it in the mud, after he wouldn’t take it off when I asked nicely (That technique is NOT recommended).

But it’s often the daily encounters, the seemingly minor interactions, images, and subtle messages that give me pause. Do I call out every classmate that substitutes the word “powwow” for “meeting”? Do I rip down every indie band poster advertising their latest gig with an image of an Indian? Do I tell the girl in the headdress shirt at my gym class that her shirt hurts me?

Some days I do, some days I don’t–or I can’t, or I won’t–it’s a combination. Because this work gets tiring. It’s a never ending battle, and some days I’m too tired to fight.

My friend’s solution? She thinks I should make up business cards with my blog address on it, so I can just hand one to the offender and say something like “I think you should check out this blog, it might give you a reason to rethink your shirt choice.”

So I’m curious–since I don’t purport to have all the answers, I’ll turn it over to you, readers. Do you have any techniques for dealing with these daily interactions? Do you have a way of approaching someone that cuts defensiveness and allows for your voice to be heard? Stories of encounters with hipster headdresses?

I do have a few techniques I fall back on, but I think it’s time we have a step-by-step “how to” guide for dealing with these incidents. So let’s generate some thoughts, and I’ll compile it all together.

Next time, Girl with the Headdress Shirt, I’ll be ready.

  • I like the idea of the card…and it might be a good way to start a conversation in-person, without being uncomfortably confrontational.

  • Seriously, the card might work really well. Not just for you, but for many of your readers.

  • Bear with my here:

    Vita Community Living Services makes small business-sized cards to hand out to people that utter hate speech related LGBT and people with dis/abilities. On one side it says “Words hurt like a fist” and on the other side it explains why you shouldn’t use those words.

    The design for card dealing with dis/ability slurs is here: Words Hit (Dis/abilities)

    The design for the card dealing with LGBT slurs is here: Words Hit (LGBT)

    An explanation of the project is here: Background Paper

    Anyway, that is a long winded way of saying- I think the cards could end up being a great idea!

  • This post all makes sense. Your friend’s card idea is brilliant!

    I corrected a woman the other day on a slur. But I smiled while I did it. And it was a pretty mild slur, one of those words that slips into lexicon. It felt like a risk but she smiled and said, “Oh I’d never thought of it!” In my case I had a lack of intensity/anger and I think that helped… however… I would be naive and jerk-ish to suggest such an approach “works” (sometimes it doesn’t) or that all anger in activism is out of place (something many ppl tell activists as a silencing technique).

    Two activist interests I hold are anti-racism and fat acceptance. If I were to say something EVERY time I saw someone Do It Wrong I’d be a very tried overwrought lady (I think). What has helped me is to self-educate on the issues (so even if I don’t end up in an argument I have my facts down pat) and find supporters (of which I hope you think many who read here are).

    Good luck and thank you for posting an anecdote about your day!

  • I would ask her if she is Native? If she is not or has no connections to Native/Tribal communities then I would tell her that the shirt is offensive to me as a Native person. I am pretty bold so not afraid to say what I need to say and keep it real. I have had mixed responses from people depending on the person.

    On the other hand, sometimes I can be shy with these issues. I was at a music festival this weekend and saw a lot of hippie and hipsters walking around with feathers in their hair or hats. I wanted to say someting but did not.

  • i have many times thought it would be great if you had a little card or note you could just hand to people when you’re not quite up to discussing it with them. i’m trans, so i know the fatigue of correcting people that you describe very well, maybe i should get a card.

  • I totally feel you on the fatigue. Also sometimes I think we just get so shocked there’s no time think of a rapid snappy response to egregious stupid.

    I second the card idea. One of my friends has made cards for us to hand out when people grab at our hair/dreadlocks.

  • I would also ask her if she is Native. It might spark a conversation or make her think about what she wears/ buys or why someone else would care. The card is a good idea too. I try to spark group conversations about something like this and let students discuss. I listen and write down their comments. I think just making people think about things does make a difference. As a librarian I often ask students about museum colections, archives, and books. What is respectful and why does it matter?

  • Wow, really glad you posted this, I feel the same way all the time. It just gets TIRING! Over the years I’ve mainly figured out what doesn’t work, namely angry confrontation with an individual. They pretty much always end up getting defensive and shutting down. I now usually make some sort of joke to point out how ridiculous whatever the person is wearing or just said is. Humor tends to break through to people without shutting them down. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t always convey that the image is hurtful or precisely why… so I am liking this card idea!

  • I came here by chance. Since I’m an artist, a Brit, but also (i hope) an intellectual, this kinda debate interests me – but I acknowledge I don’t have the cultural and meaningful links to the issue others have. I’m aware my view is very much that of the disconnected outsider.

    It’s tricky when cultures mesh; history is often violent and modern society for all its attempts at inclusion will mix multiculturalism with outright insult without even realizing.

    Do I believe the artist who designed the shirt meant offense? No. Probably if you asked them at best they’d wax lyrical about what they thought was a powerful and mystical image, a worst they’d likely say they thought it looked cool and would sell. Did the girl wearing it mean offense? No, at a guess it either struck a cord with her or fit her budget. … But despite that, it caused offense, even unwittingly. And so there’s fault.

    A friend of mine wrote with much passion seeking to spark a debate on where the line was between being multicultural and stealing and effectively raping another’s culture. She used the example of the fashion a few years back in the goth/hippy/clubbing scene of wearing bindis and how to an Asian woman it might be offensive.

    Having once or twice worn a bindi when dressed up in clubbing regalia, I might well have offended someone. However, although not a Hindu I know the mark represents the Third Eye and unless applied correctly in ritualistic circumstance it is nowdays more a mark of decoration. I suppose I separate in my mind what is ritual and what is eveyday. (In other words, I didn’t believe I would cause offense wearing a bindi. But I wouldn’t have enacted a mock up of a Hindu ritual and had a Tilaka marked on my forehead by someone pretending to be a priest.)

    I suppose my point is that when cultures merge, one must accept an amount of impurity in the exchange. (But I fully acknowledge I might not be so blasse were I in a culture that had been pilfered from or assimilated to such an extent.)

    I doubt there is a proper answer as to where such a line should be drawn. The swapping of culture is good, the assimilation of culture can be bad, and at the end of the day someone somewhere will try to turn a profit out of something profound or sacred which is just crass.

    I guess the best that can be done is inform people politely when one feels offended and hope that day by day people and cultures mix with better freedom, understanding and respect.

    It’s bloody late where I am, so I hope that made some sense; anyways, thank you for writing, it’s given me things to ponder.

    Oh, and I think cards are a fine idea for both opting out of full scale confrontation and also hoping to spark new thoughts and conversation =)

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  • I’m surprised no-one has mentioned Adrian Piper’s conceptual pieces “My Calling Card”. It’s a great idea, and Piper handed these out regularly at social and academic gatherings. See:


  • Sigh, this happened to me today. It was “wear a jersey day” at school and one of the (white) teachers wore a Chicago Blackhawks jersey. Keep in mind I teach at a reservation school with a 99.9% Native student body. I just stared in disbelief this morning at drum group (ironic, right?), but I couldn’t gather up the courage or even the words to say anything. And it’s not like she’s even new to the area or the school… I hope someone else said something =\

  • amen to that. i like your friends idea…

  • Thanks for your blog. My son is Quequchi Indian (from Guatemala). As his cuacasian parent, I think it is important that he understands and recognizes sterotypes and inappropriate uses of Native American images and knows how to confront then and educate people as he will face racist comments here in a US and in Guatemala if he returns there some day. As a white mother though, I often don’t feel like my comments to teachers, relatives about inappropropriate activites or racist comments bear any weight given the fact that I am cuacasian and not of Native American heritage. Any suggestions?? Thanks

  • Umm The brochure Idea Adrienne. Remember? OMG, its me whos been lazy i said i would draft it.. okay give me a week…

  • I really like the card idea. I’m queer, not aboriginal, and speaking from another position of marginalization, I know how draining and numbing it is to face this stuff daily. A card would mean neither ignoring it nor having to deal with it head on (which, of course, has its place… but it’s so tiring, right?)

  • card idea is very good. you’ve got a smart friend. it’s not very confrontational, and it will make you feel like you tried…

    i run into a lot of similar situations, where a polite or non-confrontational person would not say anything. I do, basically all the time. My husband is driven a bit nuts about this, partially because I do it in a language and a culture he doesn’t know so he’s unclear on how far out of line I may or may not be.

    But I take the bull by the horns. Because life is too short to let people get away with crap. On the other hand, I’m talking actions and how people speak to me (as a minority in a country other than my own), so they’re already engaged with me, interacting with me.

    anyway, good luck. my first visit to your blog. i like it.

  • Card is a good idea but doesn’t it say a lot that so many of us feel this way and are reluctant to even vocalize it? The ability to manipulate the idea of “Indian” in mainstream society has become internalized in so many that it is a matter of completely rewiring thought patterns. The lingering cultural manifest destiny.

    A previous poster mentioned the Blackhawks jersey at a reservation school. On my Kanienkeha/Mohawk side many of my relatives support the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, my little brother even attends a public school whose team names are The Warriors. They view these images (in my opinion)as an outward representation that we still exist. Not the most positive expression of our existence but still one nonetheless. Its hard to fight an uphill appropriative battle when those represented are not fighting in line… Not every “Indian” thinks about these things or will admit to a sensation of frustration of hurt at these sights.
    Almost everyday I go past Squaw Island Park. Squaw – derogatory term for female Onkwehonwe.
    Squaw- taken from the Rotinoshonni word otsiskaw (o-ji-skaw) meaning, “the female genitals”.
    And everytime I go by I contemplate a petition to city hall to change the name.
    Why don’t I? Well, I am not sure if anyone cares but me.
    When I tell white friends, they are appalled…then turn around and don beads and headdresses for a cowboy and indian party.

    Not to sound pessimistic- but most people only care so long as it doesn’t ruin their fun or their fashion sense.

  • Know how you feel, especially when you’re in/around a school environment and every november.

    If a business card or brochure ever comes up I’d love to run off copies and use them where I’m at.

  • I think creating thought and educating people is an important step. Most people have been brought up with the usage of the stereotypical symbolism without realizing how hurtful it really is to someone who is of Native American descent. Part of what I do every day is educate…educate people on the good, bad, and the ugly of Reservation life and quite frankly i am amazed at how naive people really are when it comes to there knowledge of our people and our modern history.

    Admitedly there is a good portion of the products containing inappropriate symbolism which is knowingly placed in the public eye with full realization of its effect on the Native population. ie. the 1000 some odd T-shirts etc that AIM had pulled from ZAZZLE’s online store. Unfortunately, I am sure they found another market.

    Sometimes we have to judge a situation as to how it must be handled, but generally, education is the best way to start…if that doesn’t work then you kick some butt!

  • i have two dreams about this:
    1. the human dream of not having to confront this crap on a daily basis because it simply doesn’t exist
    2. the more pragmatic, intermediary dream of gaining a local critical mass of people who *get* the premise of oppression and care enough to want to work together regularly to co-develop effective intervention strategies.

    logistically, it would mean something like:

    bi-weekly or monthly small-group meetings
    agenda: set by experiences from our daily lives. basically, fucked up situations that we see around us daily.

    discussion: based on and limited to the question, “what is an effective response/intervention in this scenario?”

    role-playing ensues. maybe it’s even a little fun… 😛

    the reason why things like this are necessary are documented well enough, in part, through research on the bystander effect. in addition, it is necessary to build a “muscle memory” for effective interventions — we need to literally retrain our bodies. that in itself is fatiguing — less so when we can depend on the support of others to help us find that and integrate those “clever and effective” strategies and tactics.

  • ps, the card idea does sound nice — it seems like you put so much thought and energy into your blog, it sounds like a nice way of acknowledging and leveraging that fact to make those daily interactions a bit easier and streamlined to get through…