Your ethnic friend does not exempt you from racism
Last Friday No Doubt posted the music video for their new single, “Looking Hot”. In the video Gwen Stefani and the other members of the band dress up like cowboys and Indians and frolic amidst teepees and an Old West jail. Stefani hangs out with a wolf, makes smoke signals, and dresses in a variety of native-stripper themed outfits. At one point she wears a feather headdress styled into a Mohawk. Headdresses have very specific meanings and are not worn just because they look cool. Decoding the symbology of Stefani’s Mohawk headdress, I found that it represents “clueless” and “insensitive” and “apparently didn’t learn anything from that whole Harajuku ‘minstrel show’ incident’”.
When I first saw this video over the weekend, I told Lainey I didn’t want to be mad about it, and I’m not entirely angry. Mostly I’m just confounded. This video not only survived brainstorming sessions but was actually made and released. Apparently, at no time did Stefani and her band mates look at one another and say, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea. Maybe this will appear horribly insensitive and tacky. Maybe we shouldn’t bastardize an entire culture to look cool and sexy.” Nope, instead No Doubt posted the video only to remove it the next day and post this apology instead.
I appreciate that No Doubt apologized, and I don’t think that they were trying to be offensive or hurtful, but one thing about Stefani (who has been on the wrong end of a cultural appropriation scandal before) and Co’s apology stands out: “Native American friends”. That translates into, “We have native friends so nothing we do can be construed as racist or offensive, because you guys, NATIVE FRIENDS.” (Also, who were they talking to at Cal? It’s either the world’s most clueless professor or one that was totally f*cking with them, standing on the set going, “That’s completely fine, wear the leather handcuffs and writhe around like that while dressed like a sexy Indian brave—no one will think that’s awful.”)
In our ongoing conversation about Johnny Depp’s Tonto, the thing I keep coming back to is intent. So what is the intent of this video? Purely to look cool, but there’s no effort at authenticity or sincere homage. It’s just stereotyping and bastardization to feed a college co-ed level sexy cowboy and Indians fantasy. If it’s just about looking cool, why go the native route at all? Why not just wear funky clothes and pose in a hip nightclub setting? What is it about native culture that makes it seem like it’s okay to co-opt it in this way?
I don’t want to pick on No Doubt because they’re not mustache-twirling villains, but their attitude of “our friends are native and they said this is fine”—the equivalent of “I’m not racist, I have a black friend”—is exactly why this kind of cultural appropriation keeps happening. Again, this video got made and released, and that it is grossly offensive only occurred to them after the fact, once the cries of “OMG this is so racist!” took over on Youtube. As No Doubt stated in their apology—we realize NOW that we have offended people. Which means that they legit did not think they would offend anyone when they made the video. Because that attitude, that “my ethnic friend” attitude, is a particular kind of privilege that insulates against seeing that no amount of ethnic friends exempts you from cultural insensitivity and/or outright racism. It’s the “ethnic friends make racism impossible” paradigm. And it’s bullsh*t. Just like this video.
Click here to watch it.
Attached - Gwen Stefani arriving in Paris yesterday.