Sunday, September 30, 2018

Salty Pretzels: Cultural Misappropriation

Halloween is coming. You may already know that it is one of my favorite holidays and I am looking forward to some family cosplay this year now that the Kid is in school. However, I am already over the annual ritual of policing costume choices on the basis of race and culture (a sin most often committed by white people), also known as cultural appropriation.

I engaged in an exchange with someone online last year about this issue and it ended in a stalemate because she was dug into the idea that certain costumes and characters are "for us" exclusively while other costumes and characters are universal. I take issue with that position, and I am willing to risk being the lone voice in the wilderness this Halloween because I am actually looking forward to seeing how many little white kids decide to dress up as the Black Panther.

But before we address children's costume choices, let's set the ground rules for everyone over the age of you-should-know-better-than-that-isht. Here it is: dress in a costume, not as a culture. Don't unleash your racist urges by dressing up in blackface and skip the feathered headresses and warpaint. There is no reason to dress like a Klansman or as a Nazi because you already know that ain't funny. And don't get precious if you are called out for being that asshole and you end up losing your job or your scholarship. You've been warned.

So now, let's turn our attention to the fuzzy area between costumes and culture. For example, what if a child wants to dress up as Nacho Libre? Lucha Libre is a Mexican wrestling cultural tradition, so was the character portrayed by Jack Black, a white guy, an appropriation or was it a homage? According to the PC argument, dressing as a luchadore if you're not Mexican might be considered offensive. So might dressing your daughter up as a geisha if she's not Asian (Japanese specifically) or dressing as a hula dancer if you're not Hawaiian. If you're not French, can you dress like a mime or a can-can dancer? If you aren't Australian, would Crocodile Dundee be problematic? If taken to its most illogical stretches of the imagination it could be (and has been) argued that dressing as a cowboy if you aren't from out West also could be offensive.

See how quickly it goes downhill? I haven't even gotten to the Disney characters that were at issue in the argument I had last year. And if we keep on going, then it gives all of those still-living-in-their-mama's-basement racists an excuse to complain when characters that historically have been white get recast (such as Spiderman).

I am not making light of a serious issue, nor am I joining the dark side by making fun of political correctness. I am merely suggesting that certain cultural expressions can be costumes in the appropriate context. We can cite examples from the past where it was obvious the intent was to poke fun of or ridicule other cultures, such as Mickey Rooney's very unfortunate depiction of an Asian neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany's. But I think that we go too far when we complain about a child dressed as Mulan, even if she isn't Chinese.

We also go too far when we argue that certain characters belong to specific communities. The key word is character. Mulan is a Disney character who happens to be Chinese, but are we suggesting that only little Chinese girls can see themselves reflected in her story? (BTW, you've probably guessed that she is my favorite Disney Princess because she isn't technically a princess, but is a heroine.) Does that mean that my only options for my daughter are Tiana or Elena of Avalor or Doc McStuffins? And do we seriously believe that white girls have "enough" alternatives so they should be discouraged from even considering Tiana, Doc McStuffins, Shuri, Elena, Jasmine, Pocahontas or Mulan?

Halloween is supposed to be fun. In addition to having a sufficient stash of allergy-free treats (gluten-free unsalted pretzels and stickers), I also have to worry about dressing my child in something age-appropriate that isn't too sexualized. I have to plan for several Halloween events and come up with ideas for my own costume. And then I have to prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I have a lot of Busy Black Woman stuff on my plate, so the last thing I need to worry about is offending some graduate student accidentally or on purpose.

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