Tribal Print Clothing (OR: On the Issue of My Privilege, Which I Totally Acknowledge That I Do Indeed Have)

I once got into an argument in the comments section of a YouTube video. Groundbreaking, right? Yeah, it was not a terribly high point in my life. I can’t really recall what the video was about or even what the argument was about, but I do remember commenting on the fact that being called “cracker” is way more insulting than being called “nigger” when you really think about the meanings and histories of those words. (Not that anyone has ever called me the latter… That would just make no sense at all.) Before everyone gets mad at me, please hear me out.

There’s a certain dignity in being the oppressed party. There is exactly zero dignity in being the oppressor. Yes, the oppressor has more power at the time that they’re doing the actual oppressing, which is kind of a similar feeling to having dignity but not really the same thing at all, but then usually either someone comes to liberate the oppressed or the oppressed liberate themselves and then the oppressor gets to sit in the corner and think about what he’s done. And the children of each party get to sit and think about what the oppressor has done. Forever.

So children of slaves have to think about their ancestors’ incredible suffering at the hands of the oppressor, the terrible indignities and dehumanization and cruelty they endured, but they also get to think about the incredible strength and resilience it must have taken to endure such awful conditions. Children of slaves can take a certain degree of pride, I would think, in the history of their ancestors, because ultimately their ancestors were on the correct side of that history. Children of slaveowners should, I think we can all agree, NEVER EVER EVER take pride in what their ancestors did, and by extension they can never really take pride in their ancestors themselves, or even the culture they came from. Now, that’s difficult. Not nearly as difficult as knowing that your ancestors were, and that you yourself probably still are, put at an extreme disadvantage because of their/your ethnicity. No one is arguing that these situations are at all comparable. But it’s still difficult. Just like the patriarchy serves no one, so too does the shared history of oppression that occurred in this country (the United States, for those of you who have yet to pick up on that) serve exactly no one.

With that in mind, when you’re in an argument with a white person about whether or not it’s okay for them to call someone “nigga” or sing along to “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from Avenue Q, and you say something to the effect of, “Well you should still feel guilty because your ancestors oppressed people,” what exactly are you trying to prove? Also, is that REALLY why they shouldn’t do it, or is that just your lazy-ass fallback argument that “works” in that it gets white people to shut up? Because it does. White people in general, and here I am of course generalizing, feel very very ashamed of the things other white people have done to people of color. That’s why so many of them just morph into a blob of defensive anger whenever they’re reminded of the terrible things white people have done and continue to do. They know you’re right, and this makes them feel ashamed, and no one likes feeling ashamed, so the emotional shortcut to feeling better is to just get angry at the mean brown person making them feel bad.

It also leads a lot of white people to take this line of defense. I—and I acknowledge that if you are a person of color you’ve heard this a million times, but here goes anyway—I am Irish. I’m not going to argue that my ancestors had it as hard as any of yours, because they really just didn’t. My family was never enslaved, or interned, or any of that. However, I am going to argue that my family never enslaved your family, because that is factual. That’s just a fact. My ancestors probably didn’t systematically kill or oppress any of your ancestors, either. So when you try to use “Your white ancestors were mean” as an argument against me personally, as well as a lot of other people, it’s just completely invalid. It usually gets me to shut up, for the aforementioned reason of collective white shame, but it’s just a really dumb, lazy argument. I was raised to hate Margaret Thatcher and praise the IRA, and you’re really accusing me of being of English descent? Most of my family is Catholic and you think my ancestors were friggin pilgrims? The answer is probably yes, because literally the only criterion for looking like the descendant of a pilgrim or plantation owner, for you, is that I have to be white, and I am. But would the Daughters of the Confederacy welcome me with open arms? Fuck no, they would not. Now, you’re not being reverse racist. You’re just being regular racist. Lucky for me, though, your racism doesn’t hurt me in the slightest. Our society still privileges me, the white girl. It does sort of hurt my feelings, though.

On to the actual point, and by point I mean another tangent that may eventually lead to the point, I purchased what could possibly be described as a “tribal” print dress at Goodwill this summer. I find the large graphic design to be really pretty, and super flattering, and I take solace in the fact that I bought it from Goodwill and not the company who decided “tribal” was a good and completely morally sound way to go. But I still feel sort of weird about it. Am I just casually enjoying a certain aesthetic that was borrowed from or inspired by a certain group of people? Or am I engaging in an act that perpetuates a system of really inappropriate cultural appropriation?

This also leads me to a lot of other questions I have. Is cultural appropriation only bad when the group being stolen from was oppressed by the group that’s doing the appropriating? It is only bad when the group didn’t share my ethnicity? Could I wear this dress with no qualms, for example, if I belonged to whatever “tribe” this “tribal” print was inspired by? Should I also feel bad about the appropriation of punk culture by stupid hipsters? What about the appropriation of “cholo” culture by the Japanese? You demonize me for not fully understanding the history of the print on my dress, but how about your “nerd” costume? What about those plastic, lensless glasses you put on in a poor imitation of a group that has been demeaned and abused for decades? Do you understand the history of nerds in American culture, do you understand their struggle? Can you even compute a basic integral or tell me any differences between Marvel and DC?

In matters like this, I prefer to go directly to the source. If I could figure out which culture the pattern on my dress is poorly attempting to imitate, I would, but the fact is that “tribal” prints have evolved so much from their original inspiration that they share almost nothing anymore with the culture they originally came from. I mean, I imagine someone at some point invented polka dots (Was it Germany? I mean, they produce a lot of other polkas.) and then eventually someone from some other ethnic group then appropriated those polka dots and began the global spread of polka dots as a pattern. Is that also problematic, or is it really just the harmless spread of a certain pattern?

Recently I saw photographs of these beautiful garments, works of art really, that took the shape of a traditional Japanese kimono and combined it with the rich, brightly colored fabrics characteristic of so much African clothing design. Did the African designer appropriate Japanese culture when he made these kimonos? Most of us would say no. Granted, I understand that Africans have never oppressed the Japanese or vice versa, but what basically happened is that he decided he liked the style of the kimono and wanted to make some. If I saw some Native American beadwork and was inspired to emulate it, am I engaging in cultural appropriation or am I demonstrating my appreciation for their style? Now, obviously mass produced clothing that outright steals patterns from oppressed ethnic minorities and then profits off them is pretty problematic. All I’m really trying to say is that the lines between what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable for white people to wear and say and do is often incredibly blurry and very hard to navigate. All I’m asking of anybody who feels strongly about these issues is that you do your best to help us really confused white people out, and that you do so as gently as possible. We’re only human, and we’re just as fragile as you are, and just as capable of learning and changing.

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