If you weren’t sure if ye olde aphorism “a picture is worth a thousand words” was true or not, you can rest assured that it is and then some. Michelle Williams (a.k.a. the Millennial Meryl Streep) recently posed for various covers of AnOther Magazine. Sounds innocuous enough, right? WRONG! In one of these covers, Williams is pictured with feather-adorned black braids, a look obviously inspired by Native American culture. Jezebel immediately posed the question “Why Is Michelle Williams in Redface?”, Refinery 29 was struck incredulous (“What?? We Can’t Believe How Offensive Michelle Williams’ Latest Cover Is”), and Paper Magazine just went the full mile and deemed the cover racist (“Thoughts on Michelle Williams’ Racist Magazine Cover”).
Let’s unpack this, shall we? I do agree that the headline featured on the cover is beyond unfortunate. “There’s No Place Like Home” is supposed to refer to Williams’ latest film, Oz, the Great and Powerful, but it’s not much of a stretch to correlate that tagline to the expulsion of Native Americans from their homes. Hands down, this is a pretty egregious error on some editor’s part. It’s insensitive and deserves a discussion.
But that’s not what this uproar is focusing on. Most blogs are concentrating on the editorial look and instantly branding the display as “red face” and “racist.” Maybe my eyes aren’t working, but Michelle’s skin looks like the same tone it always is and she doesn’t appear to be smoking a peace pipe in a teepee while trying to look sexy in a head dress. If that were the case, the racism charge might be deserved. But a few fashion flourishes that have roots in another time period or culture (like any fashion movement) does not mean she is dressing up as a Native American. Are we supposed to never engage with the Native American culture and pretend like its influence does not exist or affect us? Is that somehow better? Our culture has made great strides in accepting a range of minority groups in recent decades. But on our way to a more politically correct destination, have we missed the mark and gone too far to a trigger-happy place where the knee-jerk reaction is to be offended by every little thing?
The U.S. has built its name on being a melting pot. Our culture, and art in general, is one of appropriation: one fashion trend or musical genre is inspired by another that was inspired by yet another. So why are some things allowed and others not? The appropriation of hip-hop culture is widespread and influences the way many of us dress and speak, among other forms of self-expression. Like Native Americans, many of the originators of that style are still subjugated to this day. So why does a feather make someone racist? Madonna appropriated vogue culture from predominantly poor African American gay men. Does that then make her homophobic and racist?
This whole debate feels like a red herring in terms of what the actual racial issues are. A fashion look in some magazine provokes outrage, while the real issues plaguing Native Americans (poverty, self-governance, alcoholism) don’t get much ink. The only way we can exact positive change is to fight the real battles through activism and at the ballot box, not by clutching pearls over accessorizing. We’re all capable of so much more than that.