Earlier today we (I) uncritically posted some of the provocative(racist) merchandise for Kanye West‘s Yeezus Tour. After a few enlightening exchanges on Twitter that resulted in some changes to the original article, I’d like to clarify what those changes were and why they were made. The main change is evident in the title: instead of reading, “Kanye West’s Yeezus Tour Merchandise Gets Political,” it now includes the word “racist” in parentheses after “political.” Following this change, a link was provided to the blog Native Appropriations, a site that is dedicated to critically discussing instances of appropriation and commodification of Native American images. These changes weren’t merely cosmetic.
I made the changes because as Native Appropriations wearily and frequently demonstrates, there’s an ongoing and historical indifference to the lived lives Native Americans that gets perpetuated through generic, stale and racist images of headdresses and feathers and other items. For example, although criticism against the Washington Redskins has been rather reinvigorated this year, it did not come out of nowhere. People have been criticizing the Redskins for years, decades. In fact, there is a long and chilling history or Native Americans and their allies resisting such images and being dismissed with responses like “it’s just an image” or “it doesn’t matter.” No, these things do matter and to say that they don’t is to disconnect how images affect who they are tethered to. When an image is out there in the world, it can and does have real consequences for the people it represents. There’s a reason celebrities have publicists, to say the least.
To be clear, I’m calling the image on this t-shirt racist for a specific reason: Native Americans are not dead. When I say that I’m referring to how Native Americans are frequently represented not only as one monolithic group of people, but as a group of people who are stuck in time, almost prehistoric. These representations are possible because of how Native Americans are marginalized politically, economically, socially and symbolically. Although there certainly are tribes and groups and nations that proudly feature symbols like headdresses and feathers in their traditions, even so, the peoples are more than these traditions. Otherwise put: they do not exist outside of time. They are not living relics of the past, mechanically reproducing the same ideas, beliefs and icons over and over again. Their recipes have changed, their shoes have changed, their hairstyles have changed, just like any other group of people. Moreover, even if these things hadn’t changed, existence itself is a temporal process, so even remaining the same is an active process. All that to say, they have experienced the same histories that we have. Thus, although a skeleton has no identifiable racial characteristics (at least not a drawing of one), by having a skeleton wear a headdress, the t-shirt implies that Native Americans are dead, nonexistent, and subsequently unimportant.
This is the precise logic that allowed the owners of the Washington Redskins to aggresssively ignore the dissent of Native Americans and their allies for so long. Their voices didn’t matter because as far as the owners were concerned, they didn’t exist. Accordingly, their images could be used like they were apart of the public domain. The irony, of course, was that this “nonexistence” was enabled by the owners’ ongoing use of the images that helped make this nonexistence seem like a reality. In other words, they actively use(d) the their own inaction as proof that no action was necessary.
In the context of Kanye West, this matters because Kanye at least claims to be anti-corporate and pro-uplift. While the accuracy of those claims is questionable, we can definitely say this: at the end of the day, even if he arguably really just wants to speak for himself, Kanye West frequently advocates giving silenced voices a chance to be heard. His self-narrative and his recent press run make this explicit. Accordingly, by profiting off of images that quite neatly fit into an ongoing history of silencing the voices of Native Americans, he’s become one of the silencers that he rails against. Although the shirts have already been printed, by condemning those images, Kanye can resolve this in a meaningful way. Until that happens, “Black Skinhead,” doesn’t sound quite so ironic.
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