Cultural Appropriation: resources for the holiday season

As the holiday season progresses from Halloween to Thanksgiving to holidays celebrated by many people during Winter Break, the KFTC Racial Justice Committee had the opportunity to pause and have a conversation about the cultural appropriation that is so pervasive during these months.

Without considering the impact of the choices they make – from blackface to Native American headdresses to hillbilly costumes and “redneck” parties – people are feeling dehumanized. We hear people say how this hurts them.

The reaction of some is to say they’re being “too sensitive,” but isn’t this reaction itself insensitive? Who gets to decide what is “too sensitive?” Who gets to decide what hurts or doesn’t? Who is permitted to measure someone else’s pain? And who decide how much is “too much?”

So when you dress your daughter in her “Indian” costume, with the colorful headdress, are you, regardless of intention, part of a culture that is desensitized to the pain of others? It doesn’t matter that you don’t mean to hurt anyone, it still hurts.

“As I write this, I am sitting on stolen land1, home to the Cherokee, the Shawnee and the Haudenosaunee,” shared Meta Mendel-Reyes, a Madison County member and KFTC chairperson. “Through their eyes, a seemingly harmless costume is not only rubbing salt in a wound it’s reinforcing and normalizing ongoing discrimination.”

Sometimes we try to “celebrate” cultures of “others” by imitating parts and pieces rather than embracing the richness that is the whole. This is cultural appropriation

Other times we demean people who are seen as “less than” as a way of dehumanizing them. An especially egregious examples is white people wearing black-face.2 If, as KFTC’s vision statement states, “We are working for a day when discrimination is wiped out of our laws, habits and  hearts,” maybe each of us should pause and question the norms we’ve come to accept. This is a huge goal, but we’ll get there, if each of us can take small steps in our own hearts and lives.

While working together on ways we could work towards better informing not only each other but also making sure future generations are educated about the harms of cultural appropriation Madison County member Bobby Starnes shared with us a story from this past year.

“Last year, my very-white grandson came home dressed in his paper bag “Indian” costume and told me all about his Thanksgiving celebration with the Pilgrims. ‘Grammy,’ he said, ‘guess what we did in school today?’ I already knew and my heart was breaking. I’d written about this nearly ten years ago3. And yet here I was trying to find the words to explain to my six-year old grandson what it meant to be dressed in that paper bag vest and wearing a headband adorned with three paper feathers.4

“Besides responding to him, I knew a larger issue needed to be addressed. I began with my daughter-in-law, who listened with interest. She knew something was wrong, but didn’t have the words to name it and therefore couldn’t address it. The piece is linked above with the hope that it problematizes an issue many have felt but not been able to name. Rather than being silenced by the fear that someone will say this concern is ‘trivial’ or the reinforcement of stereotypes is ‘just tradition,’ perhaps probing the unquestioned norm will propel us to action in similar situations.”

Footnotes:

1. You can look up information for your area and search a location to find territory acknowledgment information by visiting - https://native-land.ca/territory-acknowledgement/

2. Visit https://www.cbsnews.com/news/history-of-blackface-unmasking-the-racism-reignited-by-megyn-kelly-controversy/ to learn more

3. You can read Bobby’s piece about teaching Native histories in the classroom by visiting our website at http://kftc.org/resources/teaching-truth-not-easy

4. You can also learn more about cultural appropriation and ways that classrooms can do better by visiting our website at http://kftc.org/resources/dressing-halloween


Additional Resources:

Halloween

Thanksgiving

How to Celebrate A Holiday That's Not Part of Your Identitiy: An Anti-Racist Guide