Wearing my ‘Redskins = Racist’ Tee in a Bourgeois Area

Last month I picked up this delightful tee and have been giddy to wear it everywhere I go. I decided that the first time I would wear it, it would have to be in a place with high ignoramuses who bleed privilege. Yeah yeah yeah…call me out for being an attention-whore who seeks shock value, whatever. Anyway–

Where did I go? Santana Row, of course! I get this gag reflex every time I go there. Although I’m overly generalizing, it seems to me that everyone wants to be like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West out there. People who hang out there on any given day means they 1) aren’t at work or busy hustling, and 2) display their wealth in disgusting excess. The interesting thing is – San Jose is so ethnically diverse. It attracts folks from all over the world because of it’s association with Silicon Valley on top of being considered the biggest (wannabe) metropolitan city in the South Bay. Although many groups of people who reside in San Jose are minorities, many of them are very unaware of internalized oppression and the reality that they (we) are largely marginalized. They ‘pass,’ so they don’t think any more of it. Sounded to me like a perfect opportunity to give people a little dose of history, a bit of a challenge, and also kick their consciousness in gear.

So, you bet your bottom dollar I’m going to traipse myself around in this t-shirt!

The Results:

  • Lots of double-takes. Most people’s gaze went to my shirt, up to my face, and down to my shirt again.
  • Blinking eyes and raised brows. A lot of these also came in the form of pointed stares as if it were somehow offensive to them. No surprise there, but wearing a t-shirt is passive – not active, nor confrontational. (Ok, maybe visually confrontational).
  • One conversation. One guy said that he agreed with my shirt. He seemed nervous and made it a point to keep our chat very short, but overall he relayed that after learning more in-depth treatment of Native Americans in the US at school, he couldn’t believe people still use such terms.

That sole conversation was more than I expected. But as I could see the wheels in people’s heads turn, I knew that the visibility – and more importantly, readability – were a good point to my wardrobe choice. I know I’m not going to change the world by wearing the shirt, but I can challenge wearer-perceiver relationships and stereotypes that keeps people from talking about it. At the very least, I can say I’ve got them thinking about it. We all start somewhere.

To read more about how the term “redskins” is racist and offensive, I’ll point you to one of my favorite bloggers and scholars, Adrienne K.’s Native Appropriations. As for the shirt, I got mine here  from Bambu DePistola – be sure to check his music.

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Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Exchange

Earlier this morning, I came across an article  written by Jarune Uwujaren that discusses the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.  I have been following a lot of websites and blogs that have attacked those who misappropriate cultural/native/indigenous forms for quite some time.  As someone who knows the histories of colonialism, missionization and imperialism upon ones country and cultural heritage, I clearly position myself on one side of the line.  Western expansion from the 18-20th centuries has obviously effected cultural mixing, hybridity and certain appropriated traditions.  To say that I only live, eat, speak, dress and think in a Filipino mindset wouldn’t be true.  I was born and raised in the diaspora, was brought up monolingual, and thus have a very American upbringing.  Sure.  But I know that we all get a knee-jerk reaction when hipster kids don their Native American feather head dresses, or when you see a bindhis on the forehead of a really trashed, scantily clad somebody out at a club.  “Do they know what they’re doing??” is really the only thing I can allow myself to think without getting infuriated.

Now sometimes even I get really insecure about my own interests.  I respect all native/indigenous traditions, and I come from a place of understanding.  I have dedicated the past almost 8 years of my life studying material/immaterial cultural heritage, and the majority of it hasn’t even encompassed my own heritage.  And I’m not talking from just my interaction with books and scholars, but I have gotten to know artists who were integral in causing cultural awareness and social change, as pillars for a cultural renaissance and art activism for their communities.  But just because I know it and understand it does not give me agency to adopt their materials, their designs, or don their ancestry by wearing their textiles.  That would be in direct contradiction to what I stand for, not to mention complete disrespect.  Just because I am in the know, does not make it okay.

But of course, there are those who have no clue.  And sometimes this is completely innocent.  And sometimes, they are brought up thinking that just because America is a huge melting pot (I like the word potluck) of cultures, food, expression, that all of these outwardly forms of self-representation is there for the taking.  Personalizing one’s style and world view is or should be a good thing.  But it’s really not that easy.  When someone who has taken a visual design that is directly linked to the spirit of my ancestry, all I want to do is acquaint that person’s face with my vicious backhand.  When something I consider sacred, that I would have to go through rite of passage for, that I have to gain the honor and respect first before gaining knowledge of its meaning, it is nothing short of blood boiling that someone thinks they can easily wear it around because it looks ‘cool.’  This is offensive, and I know we need to be patient with those who aren’t aware.  As Uwujaren puts it,

“True cultural exchange is not the process of ‘Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours’ that we sometimes think it is.  It’s something that should be mutual.”

Preach, sis, preach.  The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is a fruitful intersection for dialogue.