Back in 2013, I wrote a Monthly Musing calling into question the use of others’ cultures in the name of Halloween costumes. The reflection was filtered through my professional lens as a teacher, administrator and coach. In the past five years, a lot has changed – professionally, socially and personally. As a result, I am revisiting this topic through a slightly wider lens. A little over a year ago, my partner and I expanded our family with a beautiful, 7-year old son across race from foster care who we hope to adopt this coming year. For those keeping track, that is a family with one Mexican dad (Gary), one white dad (me) and one black son (D), (and a one Pekinese dog, Mimi). While my stance on the appropriateness of appropriating others’ cultures – in general and in particular on Halloween – has not changed (don’t do it), D has pushed us to think even more deeply and critically at our reasons why and how those reasons are relative to the skin we are in.
A few months ago, while the family was swimming, D looked at my pale legs and said, “I wish I had white skin”. Even our breaking hearts could not delay our responses to reinforce his incredible and unique and incomparable beauty and value – in the skin he is in. We also sought to understand, so we questioned him, “Why would you want white skin?” He calmly responded with a tone of obviousness and seeming simplicity, “because its better.” The conversation that followed included a call to our black family members who have committed to being a force of black excellence in D’s life.
As this conversation has evolved, D’s vocalized desire for white skin only surfaced one more time – a few weeks ago when we asked, “What do you want to be for Halloween?”
Without a thought, D responded, “A white person!”
The ensuing conversation clarified that this time D was not wishing to be white, but rather saw the opportunity to be white perhaps similarly to others who wish to appropriate cultural artifacts of others to perpetuate distorted caricatures of our most biased stereotypes. Our first thought was to question what artifacts did this 7-year old associate with being white?!? (What came to mind for you just now?) Was his idea rooted in aspiring whiteness, stereotyping whites or just telling his truth? The whole situation reminds me of two recent stories.
A Tulare, CA high school, required by the state to change its mascot from “The Redskins” renamed their new mascot “The Tribe” (I’ll wait), continued and still continue to use images of Native Americans and Native American Costumes in their promotions and sports events arguing that the Redskin mascot is part of their tradition. Around this same time, Frederick Joseph, an African American business owner in New York City, in trying to expose the hypocrisy of a similar conflict at the national level with the NFL’s Washington Redskins, wore a “Caucasians” mascot t-shirt. The response from white people was quick and clear with one person calling him disrespectful even though she felt differently about the Redskins image because it was the team’s logo… it was owned by the team. Additionally, many on social media responded to Joseph aggressively including making multiple death threats. Clearly It was difficult for those in positional and systemic power to understand that making a people the mascot for other people was dehumanizing – until it happened to them.
Whether it be simply donning the cultural garb (from sombreros to saris to kimonos to serapes to Native American headdresses amongst many) or actually using kits to take on physical and stereotypical features of specific cultures (i.e. Chinese, Jewish or even gay), there is no shortage of consumables in our Halloween or popular online stores. After our conversation with D, a quick search at local and national sellers resulted in no comparable outfits or kits for those who might want to dress as a white person. While they may exist, searching for them does not come with the same ease or in the same saturation of results. But, why would it? Whose culture is for sale – and who has the right to benefit from others’ cultures is based on systemic power… and therefore, race.
So obviously, our conversation with D was complicated by the tension between the brilliance in his vision for flipping the script and the risk in actualizing it in the skin he is in.
This time, we decided to spare the 7-year old of the conversation WE wanted to have. Instead we explored other costume ideas. And D, this little black boy in 2018 U.S. decided he wanted to be… a cop. Ever since D joined our family, his love of the police has been explicit and intense. We don’t want to squash that – we push him to talk to and say hi to peace officers whenever he sees them. We also know we have a responsibility to educate him on the reality of the relationship between the police and black males in this country. As part of that education, we decided to take a slight left turn this time. We agreed to D being a police officer – and the family members, including Mimi, would go as the rest of the Village People. (See that?) Oh, and none of us will be going as the Native American member.
And yet, the story expands. This weekend, visiting friends asked D what he was going to be for Halloween. He replied, “A white police officer!” As Gary and I did a double take, he continued to tell the story of how he wants to see others’ reactions when a white police officer tells them they are under arrest. The next day, before we could revisit the conversation with D, his social worker came for her regular visit and asked D what he wants to be for Halloween. He replies, “A white supremacist police officer.” My own mind exploded with questions.
Where did he pick up the language? Us? School? How is his image of the police changing? How is that safe? How is it limiting? What does he now think about white people in general? What does he think about the white people in his life? What does he think about me in his life?
We asked D to expand his thinking. We learned that D does not have an exact definition for white supremacy or white supremacists but believes they are white “like ghosts” and as a result can go and be anywhere, “scaring off people like ghosts… Boo! Boo!!!” We still are interrogating where and how D is learning these concepts (we don’t object, just wish to be informed supporters). But as importantly, D is pushing us to inquire, interrogate and expand our beliefs about appropriation – especially in today’s context.
I cannot escape that my reactions and feelings when D said he wanted to dress as a white person, while still intense, were very different than my feelings when a white person wants to dress as a person of color. (What are your feelings and reactions in either of these situations?)
On the one hand, interactions with D push me to recognize that we all want to be seen and heard as valued and valuable beings – not to be dehumanized. On the other hand, I cannot forget that there are realities – and emotions – associated with these different experiences based on our histories and the power structures attached to them. I do think it is different when a person from an historically, marginalized community seeks to objectify the identity of those who systemically oppress them. I am not saying it is right (or wrong), just different than when those who are backed by the longevity of systemic and unearned power and privilege seek to objectify the identity of those whose identity they are pathologizing for the sake of maintaining unearned power and privilege. For example, what it must feel like for our Mexican and Mexican American (or Muslim or LGBYTQ or Jewish or female or….) brothers and sisters to experience the daily deluge of false and invalidating statements, images and attacks on their identity only to witness some of those same people using their very same identity to profit either monetarily or experientially? Seriously.
I move into this Halloween season, challenged by the innate wisdom of a 7-year old to make connections AND to differentiate. I am reminded to hold with complexity the paradox that we all want to be treated with humanity… and how given our histories, dehumanizing acts are not experienced equally.
In seeking humanity for all, those of us with historically and systemically unearned privilege and power have unequal responsibility to embrace and understand our own narratives while not weaponizing them to invalidate the narratives of those who are not like us.
- In the skin you are in, what are your feelings about the appropriateness of appropriation?
- In the skin you are in, how do your feelings differ depending on who is appropriating whose culture?
- In the skin you are in, when have you taken from others’ cultures? For what purpose? How do you feel when others take from yours – in the skin you are in?