Supermodel Heidi Klum is drawing outrage for promoting a Germany’s Next Top Model photo shoot featuring stereotyped attempts at Native American costumes, also known as ‘redface’. Playing dress-up as a Native American — or any other racial group that isn’t your own — is widely considered unacceptable, so her foray into redface is remarkable in the year 2014.
Redface is wrong for a variety of reasons. It flattens the unique attributes of hundreds of Tribal Nations into a few props like the peace pipes and headdresses featured in Klum’s photo shoot. As with the name and mascot of Washington, D.C.’s football team, it asserts that non-Native enjoyment is more important than real Native Americans, who are presented as a disappeared primitive people. As Ruth Hopkins writes in Racialicious:
Natives are not costumes one can take on and off. When people dress up in stereotypical ‘Indian’ garb, they’re not only denying the existence of 566 distinct Tribal Nations, they’re mocking an entire group of human beings based solely on their race and heritage. Natives haven’t lost touch with what’s sacred either, and we do not take kindly to ceremonial objects like the pipe being used to hawk your wares, nor garner publicity for your second rate reality TV show.
Even Klum’s fans were not impressed. “Thank you Heidi Klum and GNTM for contributing to the fetishization and hypersexualization of Native Women,” one Facebook user wrote as a comment on the album. Another wrote, “this is not right and not respectful…” And one more, translated from German: “WOW! That is absolutely disgusting and offensive. Ugly! Racist! Demeaning to our heritage, religion, culture… our nation.”
It’s very easy not to dress up in costumes that use racial and ethnic groups as novelties. It’s a Halloween tradition at this point to remind people beforehand that it’s not okay to dress as someone of another race. Then they do it anyway. Part of the problem is the wealth of racist options available for purchase at your typical costume shop. When companies offer ‘Sassy Sqaw,’ and ‘Sexy Arab’ without even looking at another letter of the alphabet, customers must think it can’t be too bad.
But in recent years, the internet has provided an important counterweight by publicly shaming people who dress up in redface, blackface, or other racially appropriative garb. So while some brush aside the potential pain stereotypical costumes cause real individuals who live daily with oppression and appropriation, the Internet will ensure that they are publicly shamed. Yes, even if you’re not a celebrity.