I’m an avid watcher of most things Bravo. Sue me. Even as a media studies professional, I don’t buy into distinctions between high-quality and low-quality TV and media. The legitimacy of those debates was put to rest a long time ago.
I remember when the first Real Housewives franchise premiered in 2006. Now there are 8 spin-off series featuring casts from across the United States: the original Orange County, New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, D.C., Beverly Hills, Miami, and Potomac. The Real Housewives phenomenon has even gone international.
During this, Potomac’s second season, newcomer Monique Samuels joined the group. I enjoyed seeing how her presence affected the direction of the show up until last week’s season finale, when I found myself dismayed and disappointed by her actions.
At a twentieth anniversary party held by fellow Housewife Karen Huger, for which attendees were instructed to dress “exotically” (Indian or African), Monique dressed as (what she called) an “American” Indian:
Image of Monique, in costume, from Monsters and Critics.
Like any reality program the stars of the Real Housewives franchises make mistakes that are interpreted as racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, or otherwise problematic. Often they are called out and held accountable for their behavior, either by fellow cast members or the general public (through social media). Thus, in the wake of the season finale, Monique took to Twitter to respond to allegations that her costume had been racist:
Yet Monique’s earlier Tweets from the same night suggest that, despite her apology, she still may not understand the difference between appropriating and appreciating other cultures:
To Monique’s first point, that the other cast members and guests at the party dressed in traditional Indian attire without themselves being Indian, I am unable to pass judgment. I do not know if they, the hosts, or other party attendees have any understanding of Indian culture, traditions, or garb.
Perhaps it would have been useful for them to refer to this checklist from BGD when deciding how to dress:
- Why do I want to do this? Is it to be cool? Because it looks pretty? (Heads up: if it’s just to be cool or look pretty, it’s probably problematic)
- Is this a symbol of a political statement? If so, do I align with the politics not in just dress and appearance, but in actual struggle and resistance?
- Do I know the history of this symbol or where it comes from?
- Have I been invited by a member of this community to participate in this this culture, word, or symbol?
- What role has this symbol played in my own life?
- Why do I feel entitled to this symbol?
Image from http://rhetoricculturalappropriation.tumblr.com/
There are so very many examples of non-Native persons appropriating Native American culture: Jonny Depp as Tonto in the remake of The Lone Ranger; model Karlie Kloss’s appearance in the 2012 Victoria’s Secret show (and, more recently, her participation in a Geisha-themed photo shoot); the name of the NFL team based in Washington (the “Redskins”)… The list goes on and on.
Appropriating from Native culture is called Redface. Like Blackface, Redface asserts that harm (including violence) is done to Native American persons and history when we engage in cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation itself is when members of a historically dominant group take elements of a marginalized culture or people and use or re-package it in ways that solidify their dominance.
Often this means “borrowing” fashion or artistic styles without accrediting their origins and attempting to silence the people or voices from whom material was taken. This is done for their own economic, or social, benefit.
We can show appreciation for other cultures, on the other hand, by engaging in what The Odyssey’s Brianna Fragoso describes:
“Cultural appreciation is when elements of a culture are used while honoring the source they came from. It is important to note that appreciation involves respect and value. It’s okay to find things beautiful. It’s better to appreciate it and learn more about it. Especially before you put an article of clothing on.”
Typically when we discuss appropriation, it is White people taking from the cultures of historically oppressed persons. Yet Monique is a woman of color. Can she, as part of a historically marginalized group in our culture, have engaged in cultural appropriation?
The answer is yes.
Image of Pharrell from Indian Country Today.
People of color can simultaneously engage in cultural appropriation while also often themselves victims of cultural appropriation. When Pharrell (who identifies as Black) wore a Native American headpiece for the cover of Elle UK, for example, his actions were initially defended by a
“detail buried in an article on the O, the Oprah Magazine New Zealand site: “The young man whose name is derivative of his father’s (Pharaoh) and who says he has Native American and Egyptian heritages…” Bloggers, Facebook pundits and even journalists are speculating that this claim may dull the outrage over the image—but does it work that way? Does some American Indian DNA in Pharrell’s double helix make the headdress fashion choice OK?”
Pharrell later apologized for wearing the headdress, but his case is one where, like Monique, we see that even members of historically oppressed groups are not immune from the normalization of appropriation.
Please Note: Before writing this piece I searched for commentary on Monique’s costume, hoping that a critique by a Native American viewer or critic had already been written. Unfortunately I could not find such a piece. I did not – and still do not – want to speak on behalf of any historically marginalized group, particularly because of my identity as a White woman, and so if I should find such a piece, I will link to it here. This is not to say that I believe my critique is invalid, simply that members of oppressed groups have a right to have their voices heard before mine on matters of oppression when I am a member of the group that has facilitated said oppression.