In a direct line from my earlier post on the heritage hipster style as a settler colonial aesthetic, here is another exhibit in the colonial museum of fashion: Ralph Lauren using genocide-era vintage photographs of native men in western dress as part of its recent marketing campaign.
Not surprisingly this campaign has not gone down well.
This week in colonial propaganda masquerading as history, we have Ralph Lauren with the genocide aesthetic pic.twitter.com/kQXGY8bd01
— Frank Waln (@FrankWaln) December 17, 2014
There was an instant and unanimous reaction to these images. A #BoycottRalphLauren hashtag quickly appeared followed by several articles denouncing the ads, and very soon the company removed the entire campaign from its website and the next day issued an apology. The apology showed little awareness of what the company had actually done, especially given it has been attacked for this appropriation and whitewashing many times before. However the fact that the apology came so quickly demonstrated that using this kind of ideological imagery increasingly brings immediate consequences.
These two articles, written within days of the campaign’s release, are key reading:
Assimilation Aesthetic By Ruth Hopkins (@_Ruth Hopkins )
Dear Ralph Lauren, Our Ancestors Are Not Your Props! by Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops)
There is nothing that I, as another whitey mcwhitington, can usefully add to what everyone is saying here, other than to point out that this appropriation of images of native North Americans is possibly one flip side or companion aesthetic to phenomena like the romanticized white male lumberjack we are seeing take over our cities and general sartorial landscape. Once you start looking for it, the revival of colonial-era aesthetics is everywhere, even if it appears in deceptively diverse forms. Those forms seem to be interlocking parts of a larger mainstream hankering for a specific mythology of national origins.
As Frank Wain wrote above, “This week in colonial propaganda masquerading as history, we have Ralph Lauren with the genocide aesthetic.”
As for why a multiform colonial fantasy is reappearing now, I would suggest that it is an unconscious means of whitewashing a previous era of historical colonialism in order to legitimize the recent economic colonizations underway in of our cities and on the land. In short, it subtly (or not so subtly, depending on where you stand) legitimates the current economic order—with all its asymmetric racial and economic and other privileges and inequalities, and with all its gentrification, fracking and other land-appropriating exploits—as national destiny. As Gregg Deal wrote above, “the perpetuation of old stereotypes protects the #american dream.” By keeping such founding dreams alive, by whitewashing our colonial origins, we allay our anxieties about past and present exploitation and iniquities.
In Canada, meanwhile, the romanticization of our lumberjack past helps perpetuate the profoundly ahistorical myth of a heroic founding white Canada while also helping to elevate aggressive resource extraction on aboriginal and/or common lands to the status of destiny or religion. But we must ask: where in the lumberjack myth are the First Nations who had occupied and used those woods and never approved their destruction?
More tweets on the Ralph Lauren fiasco:
__________________________________________________________ There are so many brilliant Native American designers you could work with if you ever want to be “inspired” by Native Culture. @RalphLauren — Delores Schilling (@DelSchilling) December 19, 2014 __________________________________________________________
— Dahkota Kicking Bear (@NERDSProud) December 19, 2014
.@dystinque @missgreyday Ha. The anger isn’t at Natives wearing “modern” clothes, it’s at RL exploiting our images for profit. — Dr. Adrienne K. (@NativeApprops) December 19, 2014 __________________________________________________________
.@dystinque @missgreyday and those photos come from a particularly dark period of forced assimilation/cultural genocide. — Dr. Adrienne K. (@NativeApprops) December 19, 2014 __________________________________________________________
I’m so tired of hollow apologies from cultural appropriators that mean little other than they’re sorry they got called out. — OffendedNDN (@_RuthHopkins) December 19, 2014 __________________________________________________________
(Perhaps these are shorthand notes for what needs to be a longer essay, as I realize there are steps skipped in the arguments above in the interest of brevity.)