“Tribal” Decor Isn’t Trendy — It’s Tone-Deaf

The home space is not a particularly dramatic corner of the world. Martha Stewart taking a subtle jab at Gwyneth Paltrow via a pie recipe is about as salacious as it gets. Or so I thought. Then, I was sucker-punched in the face this morning with an email blast promoting "trendy tribal" — and I lost my shit.
Screenshot of Dormify's website.
"A walk on the wild side," begins the collection copy. (Oh, good, the "wild" side, because we all know how rowdy those tribes are!) "The fashion-forward Trendy Tribal Collection eases you in by providing a neutral snow leopard print as a base, then allowing you to pick the bright accent pieces that speak to you most." The brand's Spiritually Chic collection goes one step further, suggesting that, "the Hamsa, Love Dream Hope, and Aztec Pillows add a free spirited vibe...perfect for the hardworking, down-to-earth girl who needs some peace and quiet after a long day." This is the kind of appropriative bullshit that corporate America — and the white people who run it — seems to absolutely love. (See: music festivals, "statement dashikis," Kylie Jenner.) "Tribal" decorative items are exploitative and reductive at best, and outright spiteful at their worst. The subtext is that people of color's cultures are superficial and not worthy of understanding — or possibly that they're incapable of being understood, since they're so uncomfortably exotic. Companies and marketers relish their freedom to operate in a cultural vacuum, knowing that they will not be held accountable for authenticity — or even frayed ties to reality. We need to realize the violence these images perpetrate by actively robbing symbols and signifiers of their cultural meaning. Lumping fragments of different cultures together in one shoppable, whitewashed mass isn't cute. The problem isn't that there's a mistake being made that people are learning from — if that were the case, Urban Outfitters would be held in a much different regard by, you know, all of society. "Not meaning any harm," is no excuse, as it takes the onus for understanding off the perpetrator and puts it onto the offended. We need to stop telling ourselves that, "I just didn't know" obviates the need for education, as if remaining in the dark were a righteous act.
But white people feel entitled to take these things and invalidate them. Call it a hangover of colonialism, but it seems some of us can't deal with the fact that not everything is up for grabs. If "tribal trending" meant that, for instance, First Nations people were dealing with a surge of love and understanding for their cultures and had millions of dollars flowing into their communities to support and sustain them, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, it usually indicates that someone thinks a pattern found in a vintage book on Etsy is like, totally cute, so it gets bastardized and thrown it on a bed with a vaguely Buddhist pillow and an African mud cloth while that person burns incense and chants a mantra he or she found that morning on Pinterest. This is not to say that one company is alone in occupying this hateful, misguided space. The brand that emailed me this morning is one of many in a long line of perpetrators that are so tone-deaf, it causes me physical pain. For the record: Tribal isn't trending. In the words of Biggie, "If you don't know, now you know."

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