Racial epithets have a very steep hierarchy, and at the bottom of the heap is “cracker.” First used as a term to describe poor, white Southerners, it has since come to denote all white people. Like “redneck” and “peckerwood,” “cracker” is fairly benign, as far as insults go. Being called a cracker, as Louis C.K. once noted, brings white people back to the days of “owning land and people. What a drag.”
It’s pretty much uphill from there, a fact best demonstrated by how my editor, bless his heart, will edit the following sentence. A laundry list of the more offensive terms: Sp-c, Ni–er, K-ke, Chi-k, W–back, Sl-pe. See all those dashes? They’re meant to dull the effect of these hateful words on the page, if not in the reader’s brain. It’s a testament to their effect, and a reminder that language can hurt.
Yet where some see demeaning terms, other still apparently see a business opportunity. Witness Dsquared2, the fashion house and brand established by Toronto-born twins Dean and Dan Caten. Until a few days ago, the pair were guilty of little more than being ill-shaven and painfully affected—and if that’s a crime, you can throw at least half of southern California in jail. Yet the pair stumbled from mere self-absorption into straight-up racism with their new clothing line, which debuted at Milan’s fashion week recently.
The name of the line, I kid ye not, is “Dsquaw”—as in “squaw,” the bastardized Algonquin word used throughout much of the 20th century to demean Native women. In Dean and Dan’s capable hands, this nakedly racist term became the title for their hybrid take on Native clothing and military aristocracy, “an ode to America’s Native tribes meets the noble spirit of Old Europe,” according to the company spiel.
More on this fragrant juxtaposition in a second. But first, Dsquaw. Presumably, they went with this because it sounds like Dsquared, and were so tickled by clever wordplay that they turned it into a bona fide hashtag. “Twin peaks goes eskimeaks #dsquaw,” the pair wrote on Twitter a couple of days ago, in reference to a mashup of black leather heels and an Inuit-themed handbag. They similarly peppered the Dsquared2 Facebook page and Instagram feed with the term.
I saw all this and laughed. Surely, this isn’t a genuine thing, but some Sasha Baron-Cohen-esque meta-gag, secretly documented by a camera crew, complete with a final catwalk scene of Bruno wearing only a headdress and a birch bark thong. Surely, Dsquaw is Dean and Dan bridling at the reigns of their own self-obsession to show how you can literally sell anything, racism included, to the haute couture set.
But no. There was no irony at the end of their Milan show, only Dean and Dan in matching outfits being feted by the crowd and several dozen mostly white models done up in furs, beads and faux-military regalia. The lights cut, the stage went black. Dean and Dan are really that clueless. “A pristinely tailored and decorated military brigade rumbled with opulent savages,” crowed Women’s Wear Daily.
The outrage was swift, and it’s been fun to watch Dsquared2’s awkward reversal in its wake. The company first scrubbed its pages of the offending #Dsquaw hashtag. Hours after apparently discovering Google, the company further scrubbed Dean and Dan’s references to “eskimeaks.” It has otherwise kept its mouth shut. Dsquared2’s toll-free number is disconnected, while calls to its Manhattan store went to voicemail. (CTV News had similar results with the company’s head office in Milan.)
Though Dean and Dan scrubbed and scrubbed, there is still the final insult of the clothing line itself. I don’t have an issue with the garb, though the “noble spirit of Old Europe” reference is a bit queasy. (Other things Old Europe’s noble spirit bestowed on Native Americans: smallpox, alcoholism, genocide.) After all, fashion is what you can get away with, up to and including wholesale theft.
Yet as much as fashion is, like all art, an appropriation of other things, you can’t be so clueless as to ignore history in your own art form. Honouring Native culture in one’s designs is one thing. Having a cabal of statuesque blondes parade about in blanket ponchos, Amauti parkas and tasselled anklets is another entirely. Let’s be frank: for the runway types of this world, Native women are mostly too short and too dark to pull off their own clothes at Milan Fashion Week. It’s indicative of an unspoken, widely applied rule: you can’t be too cracker on the catwalk.