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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

Stereotypes, Costumes and Resistance

Dia de los Muertos

Ah, fall. The leaves shine colorfully in the rain before they’re blown off by gusts of wind. Days turn swiftly to night. And racial stereotypes abound. Between Halloween, Thanksgiving and the usual ill-conceived party or auction theme, fall really tis the season of cultural appropriation and stereotyping.

It is this time of year that blogs such as Native Appropriations and Sociological Images annually post about racist costumes. This year, the student organization STARS at Ohio University came up with a campaign using the slogan, “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume”.

Yet still these costumes are everywhere. Sadly, I even saw a young white girl of about six years old in Fremont (a mostly white, traditionally artsy community in Seattle) dressed as an “Indian Princess.” No, we are not going to simply evolve to a higher level of racial cognizance, and yes, that stereotype still causes damage.

How does a person respond when told their costume is inappropriate or harmful? How do party planners react when confronted by folks unhappy with their “Poc a hot ass” (unfortunately, I’m not making up that title) Native costume theme party? Predictably, when the racist nature of dressing as a caricature of a culture is called out, many get defensive. Here are a few of the common responses I’ve heard or read recently and my critique. (Note: These are not exact quotes, merely summaries from several dialogues.)

1. “My Latino friends don’t care if I wear a donkey in a sombrero costume. They didn’t say anything about it and many of them thought it was funny!”

This hearkens back to the old, “My best friend is black, I can’t be racist,” argument. It is problematic in that it puts the burden of responsibility for naming racism squarely on the shoulders of a few individuals. If these individuals are in a place of denial in their own racial identity development, they may, in fact, have no problem with the costume.

When we look to a few individuals to represent the perspectives of the whole, to carry the gavel which determines racist or not, that, in itself, perpetuates racism. Part of white privilege is being able to pick and choose which people of color we listen to and whose voices we dismiss in order to justify our actions. We see them as a group, while still insisting we be seen as individuals. In addition, the personal response is elevated above the social, political and historical context of institutional racism. So when a friend sanctions racist behavior, we don’t feel the need to learn more about why someone else might disagree.

Another reason this response is inappropriate and harmful is that it fails to consider why your Latino friends may not tell you they don’t care for that fake mustache and Speedy Gonzalez imitation. I know I’ve avoided conversations with friends, especially close ones, when I knew it would strain the relationship (ironically, avoiding the conversation still strains the relationship, only the other person isn’t aware).

Not to mention the chore of trying to prove why something is racist. Too often, the burden of proof ends up on the shoulders of the person offended, rather than the one causing the offense. For people of color, this leads to all too common conversations where their perspectives are dismissed because the white cultural norms tell us we don’t have to consider “another country”, as written about by Baldwin and many others.

So maybe your friend just wasn’t up for that conversation at the Halloween party. Can you blame him? Did you really want to learn from him anyway?

2. “I didn’t intend to offend anyone. I’m a good person and those who know me know I wasn’t trying to be racist with my feathered headdress and ass-less brown leather chaps.”

First, go back and read my post on intention vs. impact.

This response is deeply rooted in the idea that racism is about perpetrators and victims. It is about bad people doing bad things. Therefore, if you’re a good person, you can’t be racist. This is tied to American individualism and the desire to see all of our actions as singularly personal, rather than connected to a group identity.

But racism is much more than that. The everyday, subtle (and not-so-subtle) advantages I have because of my white skin, such as not being asked to represent all members of my race as in the first example, are not a result of my individual actions. Whether I act in ways that are positive, negative, neutral or somewhere in between does not change the institutional context of those actions.

This also brings up the problem of a dichotomizing perspective. We tend to rank people and actions as good, bad or somewhere in between. This is reinforced by popular notions such as heaven and hell and foreign policy that says, “You’re with us or against us.” Of course racism falls into the bad category.

Seeing people as essentially good or evil doesn’t take into account that everyone of us has done things we regret. Maybe we knew at the time our actions would have negative consequences or maybe we were totally oblivious until later reflection. In this case, people can’t bring themselves to consider they might be having a negative impact when smoking the fake “peace pipe” at a party because that would mean they are racist, ie. bad.

I don’t have to know you personally to know your outfit is offensive. What we have to understand is the larger group context of our individual behaviors and how this is connected to historical and current oppression. Which brings me to number three.

3. “Oh get over it. The Shanghai Nights theme party is just for fun. We’re honoring Asian culture. Besides, my interpretation of the Geisha and these lanterns are works of art. Do you want to censor all art work?”

Okay, no, I don’t want to censor all artwork. Just the kind that perpetuates stereotypical notions of people and places that oversimplify and even poke fun at cultural identities. Yes, I guess I don’t have a sense of humor about this. Perhaps you should consider what is so funny about seeing people react to racist statements? Are you laughing at or with me? Perhaps you should question why, with so many other possible ways of expressing your artistic side, you are relying on cliche and stereotype?

I admit it, that’s what I want to yell at people sometimes.

The idea that we can just shrug off stereotypes is a popular one. I remember doing an activity in college where we were supposed to look at pictures of different people and say what assumptions we made about them. It was obvious they wanted us to name some stereotypes and everyone went out of their way to say how they didn’t assume anything about the people pictured. “That black guy with his shirt off? Could be an executive at a poolside. Who’s to say? I certainly don’t see him as dangerous.”

Although we were aware of the stereotypes, none of us felt like we made judgments based on those. Jeez, we weren’t a bunch of racists or anything. This is how most of us want to see ourselves. We like to believe we treat each other fairly and are in control of our own behaviors.

I start a workshop by asking people to, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever done worse on a test because of a stereotype about your lack of ability.” Almost everyone keeps their hands down, no matter what the racial make-up of the group.

Then I ask, “Raise your hand if you’re aware of the stereotypes about your identities, but don’t let them influence you,” and I get the exact opposite reaction. Almost every hand in the room goes up.

But research by Claude Steele, Joshua Aronson and many others has shown we’re wrong about both of those questions. Performance on math tests of girls as young as 8 years has been linked to the stereotype about female math intelligence. White college students are more likely than black students to ask for help, work in groups, or drop a tough class to take later when they have a lighter work load. The black students respond to the stereotype about their lack of ability by trying to not appear to need help. This is compounded in situations where someone is a numerical minority. So an individual white man on an all-black basketball team faces greater threat of confirming the stereotype that white men can’t jump, because he alone represents the group. The research is extensive and compelling.

Stereotypes impact all of us. In fact, the more we care about a subject and disproving the stereotype, the more our brains will focus on it and the worse we’ll perform. So even while we may think we’re “getting over it,” we’re not.

And when we insist that people should just laugh it off when we pull our eyes back and talk in broken English, we’re literally asking the impossible.

So now I can hear some of my dear friends saying, “Well, what do you expect me to do? It seems like I can’t say anything without offending someone.”

Thanks for asking! I do have some ideas.

1. Do your best to find out more about stereotypes and cultural appropriation. Read some blogs. Pick up Claude Steele’s book. Find out more about the different experiences of oppression for different people of color in the United States. Start with Andrea Smith’s model of the Three Pilars of White Supremacy. Come to a Cultures Connecting workshop. In other words, take some time and engage in some self-education so you can minimize those cringey moments when you unintentionally hurt someone. This will give you something to think about on those long winter nights.

2. Accept the fact that you will do or say something that shows you have biases, just like anyone else. When this happens, admit you made a mistake. Stop and really listen if someone is kind enough to explain why what you wore was problematic. Continue to put yourself in situations where you will be challenged to learn more.

3. Engage in anti-oppression work. If you’re in Seattle, connect with an organization such as the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites or El Comite. There are a large number of organizations working for change and they could use your artistic, fundraising, creative ideas.

We’d all be better off if we spent less time during these blustery fall days trying to prove how we’re not racist and more time working to end institutional racism.

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