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Gwen Stefani wants to appropriate your culture

Friday, 16 November 2012 Categories // Arts and Entertainment, Current Affairs, Music, Opinion Pieces

Megan DePutter asks “Honestly, whose idea was it to make that stupid No Doubt video?"

Gwen Stefani wants to appropriate your culture

The No Doubt video (no longer available from You Tube, thanks to online uproar) was a spectacle of racist appropriation of Native culture, featuring fetishized, stereotypical, and tokenized elements of Native American culture in some kind of sick cowboy & Indians fantasy display.  It went as far as dressing up Gwen Stefani in an “Indian princess” costume, to act out a (supposedly) sexy, tied-up, helpless Pocahontas-type figure – which is ironic given that the story of Pocahontas is actually one of colonization and violence against Aboriginal women, but which has been changed and romanticized to tell a story that (apparently) appeals to non-Native people. 

This is a racist video that perpetuates colonization over a group that has long suffered from colonization - and continues to have to struggle with the ongoing effects of colonization. Do we really still have to argue about why this is offensive? 

One of my favourite books about the appropriation of Native culture is “The Imaginary Indian: The image of the Indian in Canadian Culture” by Daniel Francis.  Even the back cover of this book is revealing: “The imaginary Indian is ever with us, oscillating throughout our history from friend to foe, from Noble Savage to blood-thirsty warrior, from debased alcoholic to wise elder, from monosyllabic “squaw” to eloquent princess, from enemy of progress to protector of the environment. The Imaginary Indian has been, and continues to be… just about anything the non-Native culture has wanted it to be.” This video reveals several of these images within seconds. 

It’s disappointing that we continue to see non-Native people play “dress-up” with someone else’s culture in the public sphere, trying on some stereotypical outfits and then discarding the look when it’s no longer trendy. 

Then again, maybe it’s not surprising, given that Gwen Stefani has a history of appropriating culture and then dismissing it when it gets old. Remember when she went through her Japanese phase? She used “the Harajuku Girls” for her back-up dancers and in a series of videos – as though selecting one “race” of women was fun, exciting and exotic. It was as though the women were props, to be used for their exoticness, highlighting Gwen’s whiteness. Clearly, Japanese women are not exciting to Gwen Stefani any more, and she’s left them behind.  Now she has moved on to pretend to be Aboriginal for a while. Sorry, did I say Aboriginal? I meant Indian.  I don’t think Gwen Stefani realizes that she is playing a real person with a real culture – this is just fantasy stuff to her. 

In their apology, No Doubt noted that they are a “multi-racial” band, as though people who are not white cannot be racist, or as though having a multi-racial band protects Gwen Stefani from doing anything racist. It’s like the “but I’m not a homophobe – I have a gay friend” type of argument. 

They also noted that they did not intend to offend anyone. You know, very often these things are not intentional. Sure, some people are outwardly hateful but most do not try to hurt or offend anyone. But that’s not really the point, is it? The point is that it’s easy to be offensive or hurtful if we stay ignorant and don’t consider the meanings of our actions or words beyond how we ourselves perceive them.  The same thing applies to the phrase “it’s so gay.” Even if you don’t mean it to be offensive, you have to consider that for people who are gay, this statement is hurtful, so you should re-think the words that you use. When people are not willing to validate another person’s experience of racism (or any type of stigma, prejudice or discrimination) it just serves to the supremacy of the white (or straight) person’s experience and reinforce the experience of racism, homophobia or colonization.