Dear White People,
I seriously debated the title of this post, with White Privilege & Cultural Appropriation 101 and How to Not Suck as an Ally both strong contenders. If you can’t tell just how white I am from my avatar I am of the most sunburnable variety. And that whiteness (and of course being cis-gendered), at least in my culture in the United States, brings with it enormous amounts of unearned privilege. If you, dear reader, are wondering what race/ethnicity has to do with feminism and Feminist Activism I strongly encourage you to read this article, and check your privilege at the door.
I don’t want anyone to take away from this the us v. them dichotomy that this discussion may be reminiscent of. We are all human, we are all important, we are all deserving of love and respect. I just want to let other white people know that we, white people, are not the “default.” And that we have a responsibility as human beings to be just as aware of other cultures as other non-white Americans are of ours. Check out these links for a refresher on Arab/Middle Eastern, Asian, Black, Latina, Native American and Mixed-race women’s activism in the US. And check out the Other Women’s Blogs listed on the right side of the page for current voices from around the blogosphere.
El Día de L@s Muert@s is what inspired this post, and as Nuestra Hermana points out, it is no substitute for Halloween. Fall is full of celebrations and festivals from all cultures so I encourage discussions of appropriation versus appreciation of Diwali, Hanukkah, and Día de L@s Muert@s in the comments.
This year the discussions I had with many of my colleagues, as well as the numerous articles I read about racist, sexist and culturally appropriated costumes for Halloween have really stuck with me. It was a hard but humbling reality when I came to accept that it’s ok if I don’t get to dress up as Celia Cruz for Halloween, because it’s not my culture, it’s not my race and as much as I adore her, my culture has already done so much damage to Afrolatin@ culture that even with the purest of intentions I could never do justice to her because of my race and my culture. There are few downsides to being white so not being able to respectfully emulate someone of another race is something all white people should just accept.
I have made it an official rule: If you are white you do not get to dress up on Halloween (or any other day) as someone who is not white. And just as well, you’d probably end up being offensive anyway. No blackface. No hottentot Venus. Also, no feather headdresses, no geisha or dragon lady costumes, no gypsy fortune tellers, no harem beauties, no “illegal aliens” and don’t associate anything Native American with alcohol. Just don’t. Be respectful, be scary, be creative, just don’t be racist.
It has taken many years for me to understand my connection to the Latin@ culture. I poured myself into learning Spanish, have lived in Central America, enjoy cumbia and reggaeton, and would gladly eat Mexican food for every meal, and yet I have the privilege of turning off however Chican@ I may feel at any moment, because I am not actually Chicana. It is not my heritage, they are not my ancestors, no es mi lengua propia y no importa como elegantemente puedo communicarme en español, eso no es mío. I am and always will be white, so the stigma Latin@ children face at school for bringing rice and beans and tortillas would never be my reality. The hardship that Latina women face in the US when it comes to safe neighborhoods, fair employment, adequate child care, incarceration rates, health risks and immigration policies will never affect me in the same way.
Again, it has taken me years to learn that the connection I feel to mis herman@s is because of class, not race/ethnicity. I grew up in a trailer park and my best friend was half Mexican, half white. Because we lived in the same park we were subjected to the same disdain by the wealthier kids, but I always felt so at home with her Mexican familia that when I took a Chican@ literature class in college, studied the Nahuatl language and spent time with members of MEChA it seemed redundant for me that my classmates and professors gave me the title of “honorary Chicana.”
But now I recognize just what an honor that was. I never have been and never will be Chicana, but because I respect and embrace all that Chican@ culture has done for and given to the United States, mis herman@s respect me, and my admiration for their culture, in return. It takes a lot of sincere interest in learning another culture to have members of that culture bestow such a title on you, and it’s something that no one should ever take for granted. I still consider myself very lucky to be able to understand-both on an academic and a human level-Spanish conversations and Latin@ cultural events when my Latin@ friends choose to include me.
Here are a few tips I’ve been able to put together for those of you who are thinking of participating in another culture’s events or just generally don’t want to be racist:
- Excepting an allergy, eat what is offered to you at a cultural event. Food, its preparation, and its enjoyment together are sacred in so many cultures that when white people make a face at menudo, crinkle their nose at kimchi or proclaim that curry “stinks” it kills me. That’s a whole lot of love you’re dismissing and if you aren’t participating in a cultural event to feel the love of the people you don’t belong there.
- It is your job to educate yourself about other cultures. If you are planning to emulate someone from another culture, for whatever reason, it is entirely your responsibility as to whether your emulation comes across as offensive or genuine to someone from that culture.
- It is your responsibility to make an effort to understand the spiritual, historical and cultural significance of any holiday/celebration/festival you do not understand. If you have read everything you can get your hands on and still don’t feel like you understand it, only then would I advise asking someone from that culture to explain it to you. It is in no way their job to educate us.
- While it is not anyone’s job to educate anyone else, if someone does choose to talk to you about their own experience or how to be more helpful in the fight for equality LISTEN!
- Your/my/our white culture has chewed up and spit out and mangled beyond recognition so many cultures from the time Columbus invaded the Americas that we collectively as the “majority” must step back and allow the non-dominant cultures to have their own safe spaces where we may be onlookers/participants by invitation only.
- The other side of the coin is that you should make every effort to participate in cultural events you are invited to. If your friend or colleague invites you to join in a Lunar New Year’s celebration, attend a non-Christian wedding or break the fast after Ramadan, they want to share a part of themselves with you. Don’t forego your neighbor’s quinceañera just because you can’t dance!
- Learn about your privilege. Make an effort to understand racism and its deep, deep roots here in the US. Think about how different your life would be if one of every three people who look like you is incarcerated. Think about how you would feel if a make-up line based their “urban look” on one of the largest femicides in history, and that that history was of your people. Think about how hopeless you might feel if rates of domestic violence in your community were four times higher than amongst every other race. Think about how excluded from society you might feel if only 3.8% of people in the media looked like you. Just think about it.
- Make your movement inclusive. Make it a safe space for all people. Actively seek out diversity in all its forms and never accept tokenism or expect anyone to speak for all people with whom they may share one piece of their identity. And let every individual define themselves in their own terms.
- Get involved in (all) struggles for equality. DO NOT TRY TO LEAD movements with which you do not personally identify. But do get involved, educate yourself, follow the causes, sign the petitions, read the blogs and for god’s sake if someone wants your help then help them how they ask for it.
- Lastly, DO NOT GIVE UP! Mistakes will be made. Learn from them. The struggle for equality is all of ours, no matter what our identity, and we are all in this together. No one is equal until everyone is equal.
Thank you for reading, my fellow whities. Now spread the word.
P.S. To my readers who identify as people of color, if I have said anything that is offensive or untrue I beg that you call me out on it so I, and the white people to whom this letter is addressed, can learn from the mistake. Thanks in advance!
- On racist Halloween costumes (newblackwoman.com)
- Borderlands, Wounds and Women: On Discovering Chicana Poetry (pgcwwn.wordpress.com)
- Artist Creates Thirty-Nine Questions for White People (colorlines.com)