Urban Outfitters' "Navajo Hipster Panty" Is Just the Tip of the Racial Iceberg

Last Updated Oct 12, 2011 11:40 AM EDT

It's not until you see just how many different items Urban Outfitters (URBN) sells with a "Navajo" style that you realize the company seems to have developed a racial tone deafness to American Indians. There are 22, ranging from the seemingly innocuous (a Navajo scarf) to the ridiculous, such as the Navajo drinking flask and the Navajo hipster panty.

Fashion retailers have, historically, fumbled the ball when it comes to race, with companies frequently offending their own customers by presenting stereotypes and outright racism as if they were merely styles. It was only last year that Victoria's Secret relegated its black models to a "tribal" skit complete with animal prints and a jungle motif.

And who could forget American Apparel's (APP) "conical Asian hat" -- i.e. a rice paddy coolie hat -- which was withdrawn from sale following an outcry earlier this summer?

Sasha Houston Brown at Racialicious notes:
All too often industries, sports teams and ignorant individuals legitimize racism under the guise of cultural "appreciation". There is nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt or the Navajo Hipster Panty. These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures.
The Navajo Navajo Nation Attorney General reportedly sent a cease and desist letter to UO earlier this year on the basis that falsely claiming a product is made by American Indians is contrary to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

As a business that by definition is more concerned with form than substance, fashion managers seem to believe that because it involves mere appearances these things aren't important. But "mere appearance" is fashion's entire business, and these things do have consequences.

Back in 2003, Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) published a catalog that featured 67 white models and not a single non-white model. It also sold T-shirts that said "Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White," and CEO Mike Jeffries told Wall Street analysts he was "delighted" to "exclude people" from his stores. An employee discrimination lawsuit followed and A&F ended up settling it for $40 million.

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