Yes, Ameri-‘can’… But Please, Ameri-don’t

Originally, this post aimed to reflect on detrimental acts of cultural appropriation that are often overlooked, or ignored altogether, when the appropriator is of a certain race and/or social standing (a celebrity, for instance). In light of the recent events unfolding on this and other institutions, however, we would like to use this space to discuss a popular Western holiday during which such acts are not only overwhelmingly abundant, to the point of being ubiquitous, but also, as it appears, encouraged. We are, of course, talking about Halloween.

Halloween is an opportune time for many: children (and some adults too; we’re not judging) use it as an excuse to binge on candy and tricksters get to play their jokes without fear of reprimand or retaliation. Moreover, costumes based on groups of peoples and/or their cultures – even those with names such as ‘Hey Amigo’ or ‘Native Indian Princess’ – take this time to shine as they protect the people whose identities they mask from the wrath of the people whose identities they’re supposed to embody. As you’d expect, seeing your culture being mocked, hypersexualized and/or fetishized could incite in you a myriad of feelings, ranging from discomfort to distress or from annoyance to rage. If, like us, you are a college student, and you witness such acts being carried out by other students (your so-called friends or peers) at your academic institution (your so-called ‘home’), you are likely to have some sort of reaction, including but not limited to feelings of alienation and dissonance.

This year, prior to Halloween, the Intercultural Affairs Council at Yale sent out an email to the entire school asking everyone to be cognizant of the fact that their costumes could have a detrimental effect, intentional or otherwise, on members of the Yale community:

Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.

In response, Erika Christakis, associate master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, sent out another email essentially lamenting the death of free speech. “Nicholas says,” she writes, referring to her husband (who happens to be the master at the same college), “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Christakis’ email, though well written, equates cultural appropriation to cultural exchange, and views any attempt at regulating such exchanges to be an attack on one’s constitutional right to say whatever and act however one pleases. What Mrs. Christakis is failing to grasp is the fact that we are not living in a vacuum. That is to say, the troubled history of this country, through the marginalization of specific racial groups, has resulted in a lack of balance in the influence members of these groups can have on the national discourse. This imbalance is manifested whenever these marginalized groups are silenced or oppressed.

American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power?

Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of experiencing the “transfer of power” she seems to be worried about, as not everyone has his/her rights to self-determination protected. The “censure and prohibition” she mentioned are actions proposed not to control the student body, as she’s suggesting, but instead to ensure the inclusion of groups which have for so long been disenfranchised. For such groups, adoption of all or part of their culture by members of the dominant racial group, solely for entertainment purposes is not only an insult, but another form of subjugation, especially when done so in a mocking and contemptuous manner. Cultural appropriation is only possible due to the power dynamics that exist in this country. When members of the dominant racial group “appreciate” a marginalized culture by imitating its garb, they have the option of setting the clothes aside at the end of the day, along with any stigma attached to them. They essentially put themselves in the shoes of another culture without 1) fully acknowledging a culture’s rich and unique history and 2) actually having experience the significance and effects of racial discrimination on any level. Consequently, the prejudice associated with the culture that was “appreciated” is still present, if not reinforced.

Halloween 2016 is still over eleven months away. In spite of this it’s important to note, as Mrs. Christakis so aptly articulated in her email, that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” As such, when choosing your costumes for the next Hallows’ eve, please remember to set aside such fanciful notions as the demand for toleration of your offensive actions – we live in a society that is neither free nor open enough for that. If you firmly believe that you will be unable to do so, and insist on your right to “free speech”, we insist you first work towards ensuring the freedom of your fellow country-men and -women. Don’t worry… We’ll help.

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