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.