Another Angle in The Appropriation Debate: Imagination and The Empathy That Comes With It

Halloween may be over, but the issue persists year round. The Left and cultural appropriation debates pop up especially around costumes which in one era were once innocuous fun, but now deemed as socially inappropriate, even dehumanizing! The main argument is that dressing as a culture not your own, especially if you’re white, stigmatizes and dehumanizes a culture as a caricature. Also, the argument one can simply take off a costume whereas the culture lives with the stigma and cannot simply stop being what they are is unfair to minorities.

I disagree with this stance in the majority of circumstances however I will say if a costume is deliberately meant to be insulting and degrading, mocking the culture on purpose then it is inappropriate. If you’re mostly doing it to be a jerk, then yeah, not cool… Thing is, the majority of circumstances are more complex or simply not at all about denigrating anyone even remotely! Most may not go so far as to “honor” a culture out of some deep personal respect, although some may be, but the majority simply wants to dress up as something they’re not; like every other trick or treater. After all, why dress up as something you are already every other day of the year? Some may feel highlighting a difference in one culture from another may not come off as flattering, but the fact is, another culture is different from your own or else it wouldn’t be considered a separate thing! And why is being different or “exotic” necessarily a negative thing in a society that wants to emphasize “diversity”? Why does wanting to feel like or be someone different than yourself for a bit a bad thing necessarily?

The perspective I want to being to the debate sounds corny, but I think is significant: Imagination. What child doesn’t want to imagine they are something different than what they are in real life? Reads a story about pirates and wants to imagine what it would be like abroad a pirate ship as part of the crew. Reads a fairy tale and wonders what life as a princess would be like. What it’s like to wear a gown to the ball, or reads about some far away land and wants to imagine being there too. To taste their cool foods, hear their music, wear what they do, if only for a daydream. Why is it not just as innocent for a child to dress up and pretend to be an Indian as it is a pirate? One can argue Indians were historically treated as inferior whereas pirates don’t have that history in the US. But how does that change the fact the kid simply wants to imagine being someone else, devoid of a desire to subjugate and denigrate those the child imitates momentarily?

As a child, I was very into different historical periods and various cultures. When I studied ancient Rome I wanted to know what it felt like to be a Roman and wear a toga, or a stola just to have that experience. When I was into the middle ages I dressed up as a medieval person for Halloween. When I liked the ancient near east, I dressed up as a Mesopotamian, when I liked bog bodies from ancient Europe I dressed as one too another year. Heck, I dressed as a dinosaur or caveman when I liked them as well! Notice a pattern? It had zero to do with race or singling out anyone beyond my own interest in that culture regardless of phenotype of geographic location. There was no distinction between the now un PC costume choices and the socially okay ones in motivations to choose them. I believe the same for most children who aren’t raised obsessed with political correctness.

I feel sad for a generation of kids who will never get that experience. One of being whatever they imagine themselves to be. Many adults can attest to the magical times they had pretending to be something they weren’t. However in a society that forbids one from being anything but what they were born as in terms of other people, they will never get to imagine what it’s like to be from a different place or imagine themselves as someone very different from themselves. I argue that we try to teach out kids inter-cultural empathy yet how can they truly empathize without putting themselves in the shoes of the other, and thinking what would it be like if I were them? It’s too abstract for young children to abstractly ponder the implications of the Indian Removal Act on Native Americans in a dry classroom lecture without an emotional experience of imagining being an Indian, and children can express that through pretend play. In elementary school our class pretended to be slaves being sold on slave ships then escaping slavery although none of us were black. Were we doing something wrong “appropriating” that pretend experience? After all, we could stop being slaves after the lesson was over. Or did it help us personally empathize with those who went through slavery?

Is it really some gross oppression that you have to be something I dressed up as past October 31st and I don’t? That’s the grounds for the ban on cultural costumes? What about contexts where one dresses up as a specific person in a different culture or race but it’s because YOU ADMIRE THEM AS A ROLE MODEL? Is that racist??? For example, what about a white child dressing up as MLK because he’s their personal hero? What about a kid dressing up innocuously as a fictional cartoon character of a different race or ethnicity? How far does it have to go? An Aztec or native print is now a sin, or a poncho? What about European stereotypes like an Italian with pasta or Lederhosen on non-Italians and non-Germans? Why can’t people imagine and pretend to experience positive things of a culture and have that motivate them to care on a more personal level for the real members? Is that impossible? Even more simply, why can’t someone choose a costume for Halloween without having to feel like they’re a bad person for wanting to use their imagination?

Image result for cultural appropriation costumes meme

This wouldn’t surprise me if it were real! I weep for the next generation….

11 thoughts on “Another Angle in The Appropriation Debate: Imagination and The Empathy That Comes With It

  1. Well, I personally say EVERYTHING should be fair game as a costume. Everything or nothing at all. One lady came to my door on Halloween dressed as an “Anti-Vaxxer” and her children were dressed as skeletons! Haha! Made my night!

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  2. I really don’t think there’s much to agonize or weep over a generation that simply chooses not to dress up as Native Americans. One trend about those costumes you liked to dress up as, hopefully you noticed, is that all those characters you wanted to be are dead. The ancient Mesopotamians, ancient Romans, Cave men, medieval people (although you still have some people around stuck in medieval thinking), cave men etc. Whereas Native Americans (or Indians as the geographically impaired like to call them) are still around and sometimes I want to put myself into THEIR point of view (not a fake costume, let’s face it wearing a headress on Oct 31st doesn’t give you the least bit of knowledge about what it’s like to be Native American) and wonder what it would feel like to see people wearing what they might consider their traditions and culture. Personally I think costumes are getting much more creative than the overused Native American headdress that the boomers seem to love. Either way, I’m really not for the idea of culture appropriation and I think people should be able to dress as whatever they please, but I do see some costumes in very poor taste. I don’t think anyone has a problem with a caucasian child wearing an MLK costume as long as they don’t do the blackface make up, likewise I think it’d be in poor taste to have the opposite done as well.

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    • Native Americans is the key word here, for those that are geographically impaired btw. My husband is from New Delhi. You know, ACTUALLY an Indian. It may fly over a lot of people’s heads but it’s a completely different culture and side of the world compared to Native American.

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  3. “What about contexts where one dresses up as a specific person in a different culture or race but it’s because YOU ADMIRE THEM AS A ROLE MODEL? Is that racist??? For example, what about a white child dressing up as MLK because he’s their personal hero? What about a kid dressing up innocuously as a fictional cartoon character of a different race or ethnicity? ”

    Yup.

    Kids tend to want to dress up as someone or something they admire, want to be, or are excited about. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dinosaur, a pirate, a cartoon character, or a real person.

    I remember having a conversation with my daughter about an uproar over Maui costumes, from the movie Moana. The problem was focused around the tattoos (which, in the culture, has spiritual importance) and the fact that it was basically a “skin suit.” The character, however, is a guy that wears nothing but a leaf skirt, and jewelry. How else are kids supposed to dress up as him? Ah, but no; it was the fact that they would be wearing what was essentially the skin of a brown person. No can do! It was racist/disrespectful/etc., therefore making this costume available was a bad thing.

    So kids who liked Maui were supposed to be kept from dressing up as him for Halloween. Instead of making it an opportunity to learn about another culture and its mythologies, and admire them by immersing themselves in their imagination.

    What a farce.

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  4. I agree with you, especially in regard to children using costumes as a harmless springboard for the imagination. Of course, I’m old enough to remember when Halloween was a time for kids to have fun rather than an opportunity for a bunch of leftist busybodies to invent “cultural appropriation” offenses as a way to boss everyone around.

    Back in the ’60s and 70’s, the left pioneered the concept of symbolic speech as protected 1st amendment freedom of expression. Now that they control many of the levers of power, they have turned their backs on the 1st amendment and oppose freedom of expression to the extent of wanting to censor children’s Halloween costumes. Their quasi religious fervor resembles a puritanical obsession with running everyone’s life with, what H.L. Mencken called, “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time.” The definition of a totalitarian regime is one which seeks to govern every aspect of peoples’ lives. When you get to regulating kids’ Halloween costumes for ideological purity, it starts to resemble that.

    Although I discount as not serious, the idea that “cultural appropriation” is some great offense, I would remind the readers of your post that freedom of expression is freedom to express things that hurt some people’s feelings. Speech that everyone likes does not need protection. Speech only needs protection when someone wants to shut you up. The first amendment and freedom of expression are valuable because an atmosphere of robust and even discordant debate is essential to a free society. I extend that to kids’ Halloween costumes because if we allow censorship of that, we accustom children to an atmosphere of censorship and cause them to accept it as normal.

    In addition, giving in to the SJW PC thought police only encourages them to think up new demands and invent new offenses. The SJWs define who they are in terms of the leftist struggle and there is no point at which they will be satisfied. Their view of themselves constantly requires them to think up new ways to boss everyone around. As Kipling said about paying Danegeld, you get rid of the geld but you never get rid of the Dane. The best way to protect the 1st amendment is to tell would be censors to take a hike.

    “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” Frederick Douglass

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