Questions on cultural appropriation

I’ve been participating on the A question about Halloween and costumes… thread over at Roy’s place. Basically it’s a discussion about what makes a Halloween costume racist and to what extent, if at all, we can dress up as figures from other countries.

I wanted to bring some of the discussion over here and see what other people thought. So, first off, the question:

I think Sov raises a good question- is it the generic stereotypes that are offensive, or is it also offensive for someone to dress up as a specific historical figure or character, even if it’s done “in a respectful way”?

And here’s what I said:

As for sov’s question, I’m not entirely sure. It’s definitely better because if you’re taking the time to research the appropriate historical detail chances are you’re trying to be aware and respectful of the original culture and learning stuff in the process.

But let’s take it back to the issue of blackface. Say I was into African history and wanted to do something with that. Say I really admired Yaa Asantewa for how she fought against the colonialists and so I dressed up as her for Halloween or some other event as an attempt to start conversation about her and raise awareness of the history of colonization in Africa.

Would that be blackface?

My instinct says yes. Despite my good intentions, there is the whole history of black-white relations to consider, as well as the ongoing racism and continued use of blackface by the media and individuals. It’s the same reason why white people cosplaying as Drow is problematic, despite the Drow being a fictional race.

Then we take it into Kimberley’s experience [this comment] and ask: is that yellowface? Does it carry the same weight and connotations as a white person dressing up as a black historical figure?

The line here isn’t as clear for me because the Asian American history and experience is different from that of black Americans.

I’m also coming from a different perspective; that of a white woman living in Japan. I don’t have a kimono or yukata here, but I do wear jinbei sometimes in the summer, and if I had a yukata I’d probably wear it to festivals and stuff. When I went on a family spa trip in California I wore my jinbei around instead of the bathrobe because it was more comfortable.

Do I engage in cultural appropriation? If not, how/when would the line be crossed? Does it make a difference that I have a BA in Asian Studies and can speak the language fluently enough that I’m going to be attending school here in the spring?

I really don’t have any answers to this. It’s a really tricky subject that involves consideration not just of current power dynamics and racial history, but also of the context as well as the person’s knowledge and intent.

Cultural appropriation is a really tough subject for me, not the least of which because I am constantly questioning to what extent my privilege is interfering with my ability to make a fair judgment on the matter.

So, readers, I’m taking this to you. What are your feelings on the matter? What about the points I raised, do you agree or disagree? Have you had similar experiences — either with dressing up as someone from a different culture, or with someone else who has done the same?

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Add to favorites
  • Reddit
  • Tumblr
This entry was posted in Racism. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Questions on cultural appropriation

  1. Elly says:

    While I can understand that making a caricature of a culture can be hurting and should be avoided, I have more difficulties to see why you shouldn’t dress a particular way if you enjoy the clothing, even if it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think about the connotation it can have (I guess wearing a svatiska because it has a cool form wouldn’t be very bright).

    Now maybe I am biased and a bit reticent from my experience of something that is slightly linked yet pretty different : dressing with clothes that are seen from another gender. I know that some women (and men), even feminists had some theories on how male-to-female were ridiculing the women or something like that, and while I can try to understand why they seem hurt when i’m in a good mood, I estimate that my right of expressing my gender (non-)identity is more important.

    Now culture is a different thing I guess, and I can understand that wearing some clothes very linked to a culture can be sign as an “appropriation” (on the other hand I guess it can also be seen positively as some will of “integration” or at least a way to recognize a culture). But still I’d feel a bit bad about dropping a clth a like becuse it’s not for me _o_

  2. Katie says:

    I’d be very, very freaked out if I saw a non-Asian person dressed in Asian clothing on Halloween, even if they were referencing some really amazing historical figure.

    My thinking around it is, “Sure, YOU’RE not seeing it as racist or culturally appropriating. Your motives are pure and you’ve done your homework, as much as that makes a difference. But we’re living in white supremacist America here, and other people are looking at you through that lens. Whatever your motives, what you’re doing is almost certainly playing right back into that racist reality and creating an environment where people think it’s ok on other, more f-ed up levels.”

    If this person was, say, at a private Halloween party filled with friends who were completely in the know, maybe I’d be less inclined to have a bad reaction. But generally, I’m not really a fan of the idea. Then again, I’m not a fan of Halloween anyway, because of the free-for-all racism…

    I had kind of a throw-down with some friends a couple of days ago. One of them, a black woman, has decided to be a sexy “geisha” for Halloween. Me being me (namely Asian), I called her out on that and told her it was racist. Our other friend, who’s white, came to her defense. I don’t think seither of them are hearing me, though.

  3. Katie says:

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it smacks of that exception mentality that I often come across in interactions with white liberals, that “I totally get what you’re saying, and I really feel you. Now I’m going to do exactly the thing that you’re complaining about, but because I’m doing it with *knowledge* and my magical not-racist necklace that I wear, it’s ok.” I hope that is not too harsh of an assessment. I don’t say that that’s what’s going on here by any means – it just pushes that button, you know?

  4. tekanji says:

    Katie said:

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it smacks of that exception mentality that I often come across in interactions with white liberals, that “I totally get what you’re saying, and I really feel you. Now I’m going to do exactly the thing that you’re complaining about, but because I’m doing it with *knowledge* and my magical not-racist necklace that I wear, it’s ok.”

    Oh I hate that. I get that kind of crap all the time with men who think it’s okay for them to use words like “bitch” and “slut” even after I expressly say, “First off, those words are really sexist, don’t use them. Second off, especially don’t use them around me because they are triggering of the one and a half years of verbal abuse that I got from my first boyfriend.” They use the “agree to disagree” line and that’s pretty much the beginning of the end of the friendship.

    I guess the line I was trying to feel out is not that “knowledge about a culture makes it okay to be racist” but rather is there a time in which the potential to inform and educate people about the realities of a culture via being able to start dialogues through a (non-stereotyped, properly researched and executed) costume could put it into the “respectful use” category rather than the “racist appropriation” category.

    Also, just to mention but, in the example you cited it’s not like much could have been done about the costume at that moment, but at the very least there should have been an, “Oh, geez, I’m sorry. I didn’t think about how this could be racist. I’ll make an effort to be more mindful of this in the future.” in there. When you have to defend an accusation of racism with, “No, it’s not racist” (especially to someone who is the target of said racism) then you are in the wrong, period. I wish more people could get that. ._.

    I definitely see your point about group dynamics, so I’m interested to see what you think about this scenario:

    I live in China, and the options here are mostly non-white. I once went as Song Qingling, copying her conserviative qipao worn with a cardigan and sensible shoes, and my (Chinese) boyfriend went as Sun Yat-sen. That same year, another white friend of ours dressed as a Shanghai traffic guard, with the uniform and flag and hairy mole and thick Jiang Zemin glasses. It was spot on, but was also mocking a person type/occupation enough to be.

  5. Katie says:

    Actually, I think that example is fine. Context is everything, in that one. I mean, they’re in China – completely different situation.

    For me, I still question whether a similar costume worn in the US can ever be done safely. But I also think that maybe the bigger picture is that Halloween is simply not the right venue in which to attempt to educate people about other countries’ and cultures’ historical figures. For people who insist that they’re doing it in an attempt to educate, I would completely scoff at that. How about doing that on the other 364 days of the (non-leap) year? Realistically, there isn’t going to be a hell of alot of dialogue at your typical Halloween celebration, and it seems a bit disingenuous to claim otherwise. (To be clear, I am answering the question you posed – *not* accusing you of doing so!)

  6. Phil says:

    Cultural appropriation is a really tough subject for me, not the least of which because I am constantly questioning to what extent my privilege is interfering with my ability to make a fair judgment on the matter.

    Since culture and race are two separate categories, is it possible to be racist by being culturally sensitive?

    For example, if I think to myself, “I will not wear a kimono for Halloween because I am not Asian,” am I not also saying, “Only Asians have the right to wear kimonos?” My race should limit me in a way that theirs does not?

    If I tell my son, “I don’t want you wearing a giant Flava-Flav watch around your neck, because I don’t want people to think you’re being insensitive,” isn’t the subtext: “Such a watch is a black-person-thing, and only black people can wear black-person-things?”

  7. Roy says:

    About Elly’s comment: I do think that there’s a difference between integration and appropriation, although I’m really not sure where that line is. I think that part of it is in the difference between wearing something from another culture because you like it/it’s comfortable and wearing it because you’re trying to look like someone from that culture. I think that the former is almost certainly less objectionable. Whether the latter is ever really appropriate, I’m not sure.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion here tekanji, it’s been good to see what other people had to say about it.

  8. obw says:

    I have pretty strong feelings about this topic and am in fact working on a blog post about halloween costumes I’ve been seeing on my college campus.
    I do believe there is a difference between appreciation and appropriation. I think the line is even more difficult to distinguish come Halloween time because we’re dealing with the concept of costumes. The very idea of a costume suggests being able to dress as something else, an Other than you can participate in for one night. So I think the problem lies in what individuals are able to get away with, due to their racial (sometimes even class) privilege. Of course, it’s always about context, but let me give you an example. It frustrates me to see people, usually white folk, dressed as Hindu Gods and Goddesses, or in North Indian clothes for Halloween. There is an entire cultural context that is being degraded down to a “costume” – these are religions and cultures of entire communities.
    I agree with you Andrea, that cultural appropriation is a complicated issue, but I think it comes down to who you are around and to what extent your appreciation is an attempt to shed one’s own racial/ethnic/privileged identity. I meet a lot of white folk who tell me the reason they love Indian culture is because “they don’t have one”. It’s never gone over well and usually ends up with me walking away and having wasted my breath…
    Thanks for the link to Roy’s thread! It was a great read.

  9. tekanji says:

    obw: I look forward to reading your post!

    The very idea of a costume suggests being able to dress as something else, an Other than you can participate in for one night.

    That’s a very good point. (It also makes me wonder what that says about me, since — unless I’m dressing up specifically as a character — my “costumes” come from my wardrobe, with some props like wigs and wands and stuff thrown in…)

    It frustrates me to see people, usually white folk, dressed as Hindu Gods and Goddesses, or in North Indian clothes for Halloween. There is an entire cultural context that is being degraded down to a “costume” – these are religions and cultures of entire communities.

    That actually makes me think about how some Jewish people might feel about a Christian dressing up as, say, Moses, for Halloween. Personally, I’d think it was great, but then again I’m an atheist Jew so I’m coming from a different perspective than a religious one would be.

    Of course, there’s also the issue of cosplay. What happens when the costume is not of the actual god/goddess, but of the god/goddess as they appear in a fictional story? If it’s clear cosplay, would that make it more, less, or just as offensive? Which, of course, leads to the question of whether or not the use of the religious figures in fiction to be a form of cultural appropriation/degradation of a culture/religion…

    I meet a lot of white folk who tell me the reason they love Indian culture is because “they don’t have one”.

    That is so wrong on so many different levels… ._.

  10. Phil says:

    It frustrates me to see people, usually white folk, dressed as Hindu Gods and Goddesses, or in North Indian clothes for Halloween. There is an entire cultural context that is being degraded down to a “costume” – these are religions and cultures of entire communities.

    This reminds me of a discussion I had about the hubbub surrounding Kathy Griffin’s remarks after she won her Emmy. (You can google it, but basically, she said that although a lot of people thank Jesus, he had nothing to do with her award, and concluded by saying, “Suck it, Jesus!”)

    Backlash was swift, and I tried to figure out why her joke didn’t bother me (I found it very funny, in fact). It would bother me if an entertainer had said, “Suck it, Jews!” or “Suck it, South Asians!”–although I personally fit into neither category.

    What I reasoned was that, while it is perfectly acceptable/reasonable/fair to criticize someone for a choice they’ve made, it’s unacceptabe/unreasonable/unfair to criticize someone for something inherent or which is outside their control. Mockery is just an extreme form of criticism, and criticism is important to society and _should_ be as free and unfettered as possible. So, while cheerleader jokes or debater jokes or mechanic jokes are fair game, jokes about someone’s race or ancestry are not.

    Griffin’s joke may have “felt” unfair, but she was really making fun of the _object_ of worship, not the people who worship. (If you want to pick a nit, she was really satirizing other acceptance speeches, where thanking Jesus has become a cliche.)

    People who dress as a particular god are being reasonable and fair, in my opinion, even if they’re mocking that god…in fact, I’d almost suggest that it’s _more_ appropriate if they’re clearly mocking that god, because then their purpose is more apparent. (Of course, I also theorize that in a perfect world, we’ll all be equal, and everyone will be able to make fun of everyone else at any time. I think a sense of humor is a shade more important for society than a sense of respect.)

    I’d be curious to read your blog post on the difference between appreciation and appropriation.

  11. Pingback: Official Shrub.com Blog » Blog Archive » Continuing the cultural appropriation discussion

Comments are closed.