October 31, 2011

Turning cultures into costumes

Photo credit: colorlines.com
Last week when me and a few of my girl friends were shopping around for Halloween costumes, one of my friends told us she was going to be a Native American. I didn't really think anything of it until one of my other friends spoke up and said, "You can't do that. That's like saying you are going to be Black or White." We kind of nodded our heads in thought for a few moments - we are all Black (or half Black in my case) and agreed there is something not right about the idea of a "Black" costume. Then, we decided she should be Pocahontas instead. Which seemed okay.

Not too long after that conversation in the mall, I started hearing about the "We're a costume, not a culture" campaign, initiated by Ohio University students. Maybe it's been around for a long time and I've been totally out of the loop, which could easily be the case. Even if it's an issue that's been around for a long time, it is still a prevailing one. I think the major problem here is that a lot of people don't recognize the problem as being a problem. I'm still debating in my head weather a costume labelled "Native American" should be considered racist. If I saw someone at a party wearing a "Mulatto" costume, I don't think I would be initially offended, unless maybe their costume suggested that us mixed people are all monstrous or hideous or something inherently negative. I guess that is where it becomes a problem, when the costumes actually accentuate negative stereotypes. I guess all racial costumes have that potential (and tendency) to do so.

Photo credit: nytimes.com
This campaign is reminiscent of other headlines I remember from recent history. "Australians Angry Over Russian Ice Skaters' Aboriginal Routine" (telegraph.co.uk) or "Out of Step Ice Dancing Routine," (nytimes.com). During the 2010 Winter Olympics, two Russian ice dancers incorporated Aboriginal Australian costumes into their Olympic performance. An excerpt from the NY Times describes their costumes as "...dark bodysuits with white tribalesque markings, red loin cloths, and what appeared to be brown face." Though I'm assuming there was no malicious intent behind the costumes, it is no surprise that Aboriginal Australians were offended. Some described the performance as being culture theft, appalling and exploitative. The issue here, I would say, is that the Russian dancers did not see their costumes as being problematic.

I think the message that the Ohio University students are trying to broadcast is a valuable one. We should see culture as something to respect, not something to degrade or poke fun at. At the same time, though, I think it's important to view the world with humor in some regard. Maybe humor is neither necessary nor very respectful, but it definitely helps people get through hard times even if major issues are trivialized. Eliminating racist costumes is not an impossible goal, though and it certainly doesn't mean eliminating all notions of humor (Russell Peters and Dave Chappelle will live on). If being Pocahontas instead of being Native American is less offensive, then I don't think the costume change is asking too much. I would gladly change my costume from "Black person" to something less racially charged if it meant discouraging stereotypes and encouraging racial, ethnic, and cultural tolerance.


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