Fashion’s Night Out, the annual event where retailers stay open late and fashionable cities dress up pretty and party hardy, just finished its fourth year on Thursday. And since it’s my name on the byline, you know someone flubbed up big time with their event.
If you follow Native and Indigenous news, you already know who: Paul Frank, who hosted a “Dreamcatchin” party in Los Angeles. Supposedly Native American culture-themed, the event was dressed up in gobs of neon and accessories like tomahawks, war paint, war bonnets (aka headdresses), and other paraphernalia meant to be evocative of Native culture, regardless of tribal affiliation, purpose or authenticity.
For those not familiar with this issue, “playing Indian” is racist.
Redface, as it’s known, involves selectively adopting a hodgepodge of items associated with a culture that is not yours, without an acknowledgment of the social and historical context. Whether people are doing it as a fashion statement, a sign of “respect,” or for “spiritual reasons,” it’s offensive; and it’s doubly so coming from white people in the US, who directly contributed to the historic oppression of indigenous populations and continue to be complicit in the systems that affect Native communities.
Rates of poverty, rape, assault and a number of serious health conditions are much higher in the Native community than the white community. That’s the result of structural racism. Redface is a part of that structural racism, and it is most definitely not harmless fun. In addition to reinforcing damaging stereotypes and making a mockery of the oppression Native people experience, it’s also a direct intrusion on cultural traditions.
Many of the items appropriated in redface dress up are sacred or reserved for specific tribal members, and have particular associations and uses. The war bonnet, for example, is rooted in Plains Indian traditions and it is a sacred symbolic item worn by men on special occasions. It is not party wear. Romanticizing the culture and traditions of the people your community subjected to genocide is deeply, deeply gross.
So you can see why the Native community has a problem with the Paul Frank event.
Celebrities of all ages turned out for it, donned “Native-inspired” wear, and strutted down a catwalk. Adults downed drinks with charming names like “Rain Dance Refresher” and “Neon Teepee” while children, including a number of young starlets, pranced around in garments provided as part of the event. As Adrienne K of the fabulous blog Native Appropriations noted, it was troubling to see so many youth taking part in the event, and she was also disturbed to see that many of the participants were nonwhite and people of color, as well:
One other troubling aspect to these photos is the number of people of color engaged in "playing Indian." I don't kid myself to think that these issues are limited to the dynamics of power between white folks and Native folks, but it's honestly hard to see people from other marginalized communities jumping on the bandwagon to oppress another group.
The real focus here, though, is on the white organizers who participated in setting up the event, and the large numbers of white attendees. White appropriation of Native culture is nothing new, and since war bonnets in particular are very trendy in fashion, it seems like we have a situation like this pretty much constantly; white people are very fond of organizing events like this, and seem genuinely surprised when people point out that they are deeply racist. There’s one thing you can say about white people: We’re apparently really, really, really bad at learning.
Clearly a number of people were involved in the organizing for this event, including Paul Frank’s team and a public relations firm, Red Light PR. Apparently no one at any point paused to think this might be a problem, despite ample examples in the news of parties very similar to this one that were heavily criticized, creating a public relations nightmare for their organizers. Or, cynically, people did recognize that there would be a problem, and they decided to move ahead with the event anyway for the publicity.
Whatever the thought process was here, the Native community mobilized quickly to protest once they found out about the party, and within 24 hours, the huge gallery of photos on the Paul Frank Facebook had been taken down, with the organization evidently eager to cover its tracks. A mealy apology was also released:
Paul Frank celebrates diversity and is inspired by many rich cultures from around the world. The theme of our Fashion's Night Out event was in no way meant to disrespect the Native American culture, however due to some comments we have received we are removing all photos from the event and would like to formally and sincerely apologize. Thank you everyone for your feedback and support.
The language here is very interesting; it seems to suggest less that the company understands the problem and regrets sponsoring a racist event, and more that it decided to remove images documenting the party in order to appease people. Also interesting that the apology ends with a thanks for “support,” one can only assume from the scores of people who launched into defensive mode when the party was criticized; relax, it’s just a harmless party, who cares if people are having fun, what’s the big deal, I don’t understand why you’re so upset about it.
Of note, as Dr. Jessica R. Metcalf shows at Beyond Buckskin, is the fact that this is more than a party. It's also apparently a line of t-shirts and related products. Lovely.
Are white people ever going to learn that this is not okay? Is there anyone in the process of planning a similar event right now who’s going to see the Paul Frank controversy and go “Hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t do that because it’s offensive”?