Wednesday, October 25, 2017

5 Excuses White Parents Give for Cultural Appropriation in Halloween Costumes--And Why They're Wrong

It happens every year. Parents' online groups erupt in controversy over Halloween costumes. On one side are people of color and their allies, pleading with white parents to please not dress their kids in black face, please not turn someone else's race or culture into a farce, and please listen to those of us trying to teach our kids to respect other cultures. On the other side are parents who insist that telling their kid not to dress like Moana, an Indian, or a black person will ruin their childhood.

Halloween is supposed to be fun. I understand why white parents want to avoid thinking about thorny cultural issues. In a sexist society, most mothers already shoulder a massive burden of parenting labor. So the burden of assessing whether a costume is appropriate can feel like one more unreasonable demand. If you've already selected the costume, hearing that it's offensive and wrong can be a demoralizing addition to an already crushing to-do list.

Parenting is hard. It demands that we reach beyond the easy choice to make decisions that help our kids become excellent people. It's easy to let a child wear a culturally appropriative costume--just as it's easy to feed them a diet of candy, park them in front of the television all day, and give in every time they throw a tantrum.

But it's not right.

We need to dispense, once and for all, with these weak excuses for letting our kids dress in ways that hurt others.

"People Are Being Too Sensitive" 
It's hard to hear that something you've done is wrong or hurtful. I think that's the real reason so many white parents lean on this trope. Parenting is all about teaching kids to understand, care about, and respect feelings that differ from their own. We teach our kids not to bully others, not to exclude kids, not to make fun of other kids' shortcomings, not to belittle kids' families.

Yet when we're talking about demeaning another person's culture, we suddenly want to claim that people are too sensitive? Really?

As parents, we have two choices: we can complain that little children whose feelings are hurt by racist costumes are too sensitive. In so doing, we become bullies, and teach our children that their desire to wear a costume is more important than another child's feelings.

Or we can teach our kids that other people's feelings matter. I want to raise my child with excellent values. If that's your goal, too, there's only one option: You don't have to understand why cultural appropriation is wrong. You don't have to believe that you'd be offended if the roles were reversed. You don't have to know anything about social issues or racial politics. You simply have to believe other people when they tell you that a costume is hurtful.

Teach your kids to listen to other people when they're hurting, or teach them to ignore others' feelings so they can do whatever they want. The choice is up to you.

"My Black/Asian/Native Friend Said it Was OK!"
Not all people of color are the same. Asking a single person of color to excuse your actions is inherently racist, because it treats all people of color as if they are the same. It relies on tokenism, and forces a single person of color to speak for an entire group.

It doesn't matter if one person of color, or 10, or 100 tell you something is OK. Our goal as parents should not be to skate by on a technicality. It should not be to teach our kids that, if they can find someone who will tell them hurtful behavior is OK, then it's fine.

I have never, not once, heard a person of color say that not appropriating is hurtful. Large numbers of people of color say that cultural appropriation is hurtful. I want to encourage my child to live in a way that minimizes harm to other people. So I won't let her appropriate other cultures.

"Other Cultures Love Sharing With Us! They Do it All The Time When I Travel!"
A lot of parents insist that other cultures just love sharing with white people. Witness this one time when they went to India...

This argument is built upon the racist idea that all non-white cultures are the same. Therefore if one non-white culture embraces "sharing," then all appropriation must be fine.

Looking for an exception to the rule teaches bad values. We teach our kids not to lie. We don't allow them to use the few instances where it's ok to lie as a way to weasel out of the general rule. Why would we do that with something as important as respecting other cultures and not hurting other people?

If some members of a culture say cultural appropriation is hurtful, then treat it as hurtful.

"My Child is Celebrating and Respecting Other Cultures"
No one is asking you to punish your child for wanting to dress up like an "Indian." So intentions really don't matter.

Members of other cultures are real human beings with real feelings. To insist that all that matters is your child's intentions is to discount the feelings of human beings who matter. It's to treat those feelings as less important than your child's desire to wear a costume--a costume that is completely unnecessary for that child's development or well-being.

This argument prioritizes your child's trivial desire to wear a costume over someone else's critically important need to be treated as a person whose feelings and culture matter.

Kids do lots of harmful things with excellent intentions. Last weekend, we took my seven-year-old sister to a Halloween fair. While we were driving, she began throwing Legos from the back seat to the front seat. She was teasing me. Her goal was to be playful and bond. I couldn't let her do it because throwing blocks at a driver is dangerous. It doesn't matter what her intentions were.

Our job as parents is to teach children positive outlets for their good intentions. Rather than honoring another culture by stealing its sacred garb, help your child learn about the culture. Volunteer with members of that culture. Or begin a meaningful dialogue about cultural appropriation. It will make your kid smarter, stronger, and better equipped to be a good person in a cruel world.

"My Child is Innocent. Telling Her 'No' Will Break Her Heart" 
We tell our kids "no" dozens of times every day. Sometimes this makes them sad.

No, you can't live off of candy.

No, you can't spend the night at Kelly's house.

No, you can't stay up all night.

No, you can't jump on the furniture.

No, you can't watch five hours of television in your underwear.

Why is it that "no" becomes a tragedy when we're saying "no" to hurting someone else?

This argument is totally disingenuous.

If a child knows enough to want to imitate their favorite character, if they're curious enough about another culture to want to dress like a stereotype of that culture, then they're old enough to learn about cultural appropriation. So have the talk in an age appropriate way. Tell your child that imitating other cultures can cause hurt feelings. It's not hard. It encourages critical thinking. Your child will not die of a broken heart.

White Parents: What Values Do You Want to Teach Your Children? 
When you spend your day with a child, it's easy to forget that what you're actually doing is raising an adult. Every parent's goal should be to raise a person who will be a tolerable, decent, successful adult.

That means we have to consider how the world will respond to our child's behavior. We have to consider how our child's behavior will affect others. We have to raise children with excellent values--not kids who insist that the most important value of all is that they get to do whatever they want, whenever they want.

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