I was surprised to learn about a recent party in Juneau and to see photos online of many respectable citizens at the event dressed in Asian wear complete with kimonos, red lips, and white faces. Minority voices asked about the event and questioned the appropriation and stereotyping of a minority group. I thought that the public discussion about race, privilege and appropriation that initially occurred in response to the minority voices was healthy. It revealed a genuine interest in understanding why the cultural appropriation and the photos of a man in a sumo suit, a woman with a fan, and people wearing cardboard samurai hats — all while celebrating — were offensive, not only to Asian Americans, but to all of our community. It was apparent from the discourse that some people who went to the party were not aware that the cultural parody was insensitive and dishonored the minority group that was portrayed. Some were dismayed to learn that their behavior was viewed as offensive and offered their apologies.
My feeling of optimism dissipated when I read the sharp and critical responses to the minority voices which were expressing hurt and anger. I was also disheartened to see that the photos from the party continued to be posted online and celebrated. Many say the event was given an Asian theme to “honor” Asian culture. With all due respect, I must say that the photos show very little in the way of honor.
The photos were difficult to look at because they were a reminder of the marginalization and discrimination that Asian people and communities of color have faced and continue to face today. To see faces of our friends and neighbors brought the issue closer to home, and to see that many hold positions through which they are responsible for protecting the rights of citizens or educating the public about cultural diversity is a cause to worry.
As Alaska Natives, we are all too familiar with costumes and products that appropriate Native culture and our sacred objects. We are fortunate in that this community has demonstrated its respect and support of Native culture. However, we as a community must also accord this same respect to all citizens irrespective of their ethnic heritage. We must understand that taking another people’s culture and stereotyping elements of its culture is dangerous. It reinforces the notion that, in this case, Asian people are characteristically different than “normal.” This message has been used to justify the oppression of non-mainstream communities of color throughout history.
Juneau prides itself on cultural diversity, but it’s clear from this event that we don’t always know the best way to honor it or the voices of its diverse community. I applaud those who are using this event as an opportunity for education and to improve cross-cultural relationships. We can be committed to learning together.
• Rosita Worl. Ph.D of Juneau is the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, a private nonprofit which seeks to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding.