When Rihanna teased her new lingerie line, Savage x Fenty, on Instagram, I automatically hit “like” because Rihanna + lingerie = immediate win. But then I actually processed the name of the line. A sober few seconds passed as I thought about the long history of the word “savage.” It’s a racial slur that has historically been used to imply that Indigenous peoples are primitive, barbaric and subhuman. And, yes, it’s still used that way to this day. Feeling my discomfort with the label’s name grow, I decided to unlike the post.
The problem with the word savage
Unpacking why savage is a problem for Indigenous peoples in North America isn’t hard to do. It’s intimately connected to the violent legacy of colonialism and genocide that Indigenous peoples have lived through and continue to survive. The excuse for uprooting us from our traditional territories, stealing land and violently assimilating us has always been that we’re “savages” who need European civilization to tame us. It’s an ugly stereotype with real-world impacts on our lives.
And that impact continues to today—as we saw in the aftermath of Colton Boushie’s murder, the idea that Indigenous peoples are dangerous and subhuman can be directly connected to justifying our murders. Gerald Stanley’s “defense” boiled down to his irrational and racist fear that a group of Indigenous youth were a threat to his property, a threat so great in his mind that he felt executing a sleeping Indigenous teenager was appropriate. And apparently, a jury of his peers agreed with him. So savage isn’t just a word with a past, but an entire set of racist beliefs that continue to endanger Indigenous peoples.
Because of this reality, savage isn’t a word I use in my life. I hear people using it to mean badass or fierce all the time; I don’t correct them, but the intensely violent history of the word makes me very uncomfortable. Most other Indigenous people I know feel the same way.
Is there an argument for reclaiming savage?
But I also know that words have different meanings to different communities. As writer Wesley Morris argues in a recent New York Times op-ed, Black people have long been called savage—or monsters or beasts—and, as with Indigenous people, that characterization has been used to dehumanizing effect. But in hip-hop vernacular, describing someone as savage means they’re badass, brave or unbothered by any potential consequences. It’s, for the most part, a compliment. I’m mindful of the many tensions between Indigenous and Black communities—these two groups share a unique history in North America, so deciding whether or not savage is offensive is not a simple question, nor are there any easy solutions.
That’s why we need to consider that history before we make decision about what to do with Rihanna’s lingerie line. Indigenous and Black communities are the two most marginalized communities in North America. We share a complicated colonial history and experience differing but related oppressions. We have also been allies in many ways throughout our long history together. But despite our shared oppressions and history, Indigenous peoples and spaces can often perpetuate anti-Blackness, and Black communities can also engage in anti-Indigenous statements or work. Confronting anti-Blackness in Indigenous communities and anti-Indigenous in Black communities is a very difficult conversation to have—but it’s a necessary one.
North America is our Indigenous homeland and exists only because of the theft of Indigenous lands and destruction of our ways of life. Because of this, we often argue that our voices should be prioritized in North American spaces. But this gets more complicated when we engage with Black communities, because for many Black people in North America, coming to this land wasn’t a choice. Many of their ancestors were forcibly brought to our territories through slavery and other colonial systems. Who gets prioritized when both of our communities are in conflict? Despite our unique relationship to each other and this land, talking through our differences hasn’t always been successful, especially around issues related to representation and pop culture.
The tension between Black and Indigenous communities
A great example of the challenges between Indigenous and Black communities occurred recently when Nicki Minaj posted an extremely sexualized cartoon of Pocahontas on her Instagram. Pocahontas, or Matoaka as she was known to her people, was a 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by colonists before being married to an English man. She died at 21 on a ship far from her community and homeland. For many Indigenous people, Minaj’s uncritical use of Pocahontas image felt like ignoring the violent history of colonization. And sexualized imagery of Indigenous women is very problematic, not just because of the history of colonial rape but also because of the ongoing epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls across North America.
Indigenous peoples were quick to call out Minaj for her appropriation of Pocahontas. Unfortunately, the discussion around the image quickly filled with anti-Black statements and sentiment. An Indigenous cartoonist created a new image of Pocahontas slapping Minaj, in which the rapper’s face was contorted into a demonic and racist caricature, a move that fed into the idea of Black women as subhuman. Instead of finding an opportunity for reconciliation, we reenacted the same colonial violence on each other.
Rihanna calling her lingerie line Savage is another example of the disconnect between Indigenous and Black experiences. But this time around, let’s take this as an opportunity to collaborate. Indigenous and Black communities need to recognize our differences, build allyship around common oppressions and figure out how to work through conflicts and reeducation without tearing each other down. Black women, especially darker-skinned Black women, are often subjected to the harshest critiques on social media and are rarely uplifted. So, Rihanna’s success and entrepreneurship should be celebrated, not condemned.
But does that mean I will be wearing Savage panties anytime soon? No. Savage isn’t a word that makes me feel sexy. It hits too close to home with the epidemic rates of sexualized violence against Indigenous women. I wouldn’t judge another woman for buying the Savage brand or feeling empowered by reclaiming the word, though. It’s an individual choice that I trust my fellow women to make.
How Black and Indigenous communities can uplift one another
What I do hope is that we see this moment as a chance to have conversations about how we, as Indigenous and Black communities, can support each other. As our communities intersect and we continue to resist the colonial racism around us, we can be powerful allies for transformation. We have more in common than we realize. I’ve been blessed to have brilliant and loving Black people around me to help guide me in unlearning anti-Blackness and in return, I hope I’ve contributed to their understanding of my community and history as well.
The world I want to live in is one where Indigenous and Black communities can achieve everything we want without fear of violent death. To reach that world, we’re going to have to confront our pasts and collectively imagine our futures. It’s not easy work. A lingerie line may seem like a trivial place to have this conversation, but as Rihanna’s choice shows us, even the small things in our lives are complicated by our histories.
As much as we like clear right and wrongs with easy retweetable hot takes, some issues—like the dialogue about savage between Indigenous and Black communities—isn’t one to simplify. This is a chance for us to listen to each other, reflect on what we hear and come up with answers that uplift and affirm both of our communities.
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