The invitation should have been a red flag for anyone who attended a recent Folk Festival Bourbon Brunch party with an Asian dress up theme. I learned about the party through images that are posted prominently all over Facebook, and I can’t ignore what I’m still seeing. It is clear that ‘going Asian’ prompted people to act out sexual, subservient stereotypes: licking fans, chatting about steamy back room sweat shop help, lowered eyes, and seductive poses. It’s quite blatant racism, photographed and posted all over social media. But even worse is the response that has followed the event. Rather than pausing and reflecting about the unintended consequences this event has provoked, many participants are spending a lot of time defending themselves, spinning off into new offensive racist comments, and attacking people of color who have expressed pain and outrage that this event happened in our hometown.
What is cultural appropriation?
Scafidi, the author of “Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law,” says it well: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”
To elaborate: “This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” (http://jezebel.com/5959698/a-much+needed-primer-on-cultural-appropriation)
Is wearing a beautiful item of clothing from another country an act of cultural appropriation? If you’re ‘dressing up’ and playing out a caricature, question yourself.
And how do we respond when we’ve unintentionally been a part of something that causes offense? Learn from it. Act differently. Own up to it. I’m talking from experience here, and I know the feeling of shame and embarrassment from realizing that I’ve said and done things that were unintentionally racist. But that’s the key here, once you know it, if you don’t change your behavior, it becomes intentional racism.
When I was a teen growing up in Oregon, I first really understood white privilege when I walked into a drugstore at the same time as a girl of color, and we both felt how she was watched by shop owners. She was targeted as a potential shoplifter, and I wasn’t. For me, this was an important moment of understanding, which was nothing compared to the decade of subtle and blatant mistreatment the other girl had probably already experienced.
It’s hard to see something you don’t know. I feel lucky to live in a town where I have the opportunity to learn from my mistakes, and thankful for the friends who are willing to trust me enough to tell me how they feel. I want to model to my children how to listen and how to take responsibility for my words and actions. If there is any hope of ending racism, we need to actively work to recognize it and address it. The beauty that has come out of this event is that it offers a call to action. Listen, and speak out. Ending racism makes the world a better place for everyone. Maybe I’ll host a brunch next year to celebrate our progress.
• MK MacNaughton is a local artist and social justice activist.