Saturday, October 27, 2012

Thoughts on cultural things...

This morning I ran across a blog post that railed against the idea of people wearing cultural stereotypes as halloween costumes... ok, implying that because you're wearing a turban your a terrorist is generally a bad idea - I agree - but they seemed to go further, implying that mimicking another culture (in largely any way) makes you racist. "Dressing up as 'another culture,' is racist, and an act of privilege."

wow. If that's the case then I have one messed up hobby, researching and mimicking historical cultures regardless of my own ancestral background. eesh...

I consider myself a fairly respectful person, so the idea that I am behaving in such a disrespectful manner worried me. I find myself practicing some shower philosophy... mulling this whole thing around in my head while I wash my hair.

I've run into it before, primarily in college during women's studies - the idea that some one who is from a historically priveledged background can not possibly engage with other cultures without being imperialistic and racist or sexist. I really have to take issue with this stance, it feels overly simple and just not right. I am a blonde haired blue eyed WASP, this is entirely undeniably true - I can not escape my white bread mayonaise background or the connotations that it brings with it. I get that. It doesn't change the fact that I have a terrible sense of curiosity when it comes to how people live, how they experience their lives and what gives them a sense of meaning. Sometimes in my explorations I find a tradition that really speaks to me, I enjoy it for whatever it is - a particular flavor of dance, mode of dress, hair treatment/covering, artistic practice etc - and I don't see a problem with that. I don't *think* many other people do either, but maybe I'm wrong, maybe they do.

I certainly agree that taking a holier than thou attitude in 'researching' various 'heathen rituals' is entirely awful - it's a horrible thing and it happens, a lot. It happens way more often than it should and it's a problem that desperately needs to be addressed more often than it is. But I don't believe reacting by keeping cultural practices insular and exclusive is the answer - what does it mean if we don't share it with others?

What are your thoughts? I'm curious to hear, it's something that I feel is important to think about, tell me... If you'd like to read the blog post that I found it is here.

Myself, displaying some fresh henna wearing a sari drapped in a traditional Bengali style


  1. This is my take on it, as a multiracial individual. My opinion on this may be different than what others may say or feel, but I know that these feelings are echoed by many minorities I know (because within those group of friends I know, we've discussed this before). This may be a bit long, and for that I apologize.

    I personally don't see an issue with being interested in a culture and wanting to learn about that culture and the history of that culture. I don't see an issue with examining it and learning and respecting that culture, and embracing it if it interests you. There is a way to do it in a manner that is respectful to those of that heritage/culture. Just like when someone travels internationally and partakes of meals or traditions of a culture foreign to their own, that's not a problem. You are engaging in this with the acceptance of those within that culture, in a safe manner, and in a way that respects their culture, and that is okay.

    What I take issue with is when people dress up as a minority in a disrespectful manner. Now, when I say disrespectful, this is mainly my personal view on it, the one I have seen echoed by friends I have who are also racial minorities. Blackface is completely unacceptable to me, something I would never in any situation be okay with (and I probably feel strongest about this because I am partially African-American). Dressing up in Native American head dress when you are not Native American, and when you're doing it to be "cute", to me, is just as bad.

    This goes for other cultural appropriation beyond just that against African-American and Native American cultures / heritage, but it is easier for me to relate to these because both are a part of my personal background, and they are the most easy to cite. It isn't ironic or hip to dress up as a African-American with black face, or as a Native American. There's nothing funny about the origins of blackface and the racism that still permeates society today, and when I see people dressing up as Native American on Halloween it just disappoints me because these same people will celebrate Thanksgiving with joy not recognizing the genocide involved in the history of the holiday, or call themselves derogatory terms that should no longer be within our vocabulary. Or even in itself, not understand the meaning behind why Native Americans wore head dresses, and the cultural meaning behind that.

    I can understand how not being a part of these cultures, it may be hard to understand why these actions are so overwhelmingly offensive. But when it comes down to it, it's a difference of respect. And to close, I'm going to finish with a quote I found online that describes the act of cultural appropriation better than I could ever articulate myself:

    "Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture (i.e. the colonizer) raids another culture with lesser social, political, economic, or military status (i.e. the colonized) and begins using aspects of that culture without properly acknowledging where the aspects came from. By taking these elements of a culture, whether they are related to art, fashion, spirituality, or speech, and using them merely for the sake of appearing “cool,” you essentially attempt to erase the history of the people from which they originated."

    1. Thanks for commenting and being thorough, I have no problem with long windedness :) I definitely agree that blackface is never ok, primarily because it's never respectful. In considering the quote I can definitely see how it could come off as deeply hurtful if the result of someone's actions are to appropriate and not to remember/honor the history.