Thursday, September 3, 2015

I'm Confused About That Part Where Blackface Is Still A Thing

There was a little blackface incident at Presbyterian-related Whitworth University. Click here for the story.

I like that university and I really respect the administration. See P.P.S. below.

What I find absolutely puzzling is that this kind of incident isn’t isolated. I have seen countless reports during the 21st century of people (mainly on college campuses) dressing up like "Mexicans" or dressing in blackface or donning "Indian headdresses" or any other number of offensive things.

I know I’m getting old when I think, “these idiots are going to be in charge of the world when I’m elderly and can no longer care for myself. Good luck to us.”

Here’s the thing. These people probably aren’t idiots about everything. As I have said before, common sense isn’t common. It is taught. A perfectly savvy and mature young person might make a racist decision because someone, namely parents-pastors-teachers-older siblings-grandparents-friends-pop culture, never bothered to teach her or him that some things are wrong.

So many people think it is okay to dress up in blackface/yellowface/red face/brownface. I’m here to tell you it’s not okay. In fact, I’m making a handy reference list for you.

Things that are not okay:

  1. Dressing like stereotypes of Mexicans for Cinco de Mayo (That’s called “brownface” and it’s racist.)
  2. Dressing up in white face paint and knock-off imitations of kimono (That’s called “yellowface” and it’s racist.)
  3. Dressing up in coconut bra tops and fake grass skirts (We colonized Hawaii and deposed their queen and have relegated indigenous Hawaiians to the margins of culture and history, and you think it’s cute to dress up in a stereotype of a deep and rich culture? That’s racist.)
  4. Wearing an “Indian” headdress (That’s called “redface” and it’s racist.)
  5. Painting your face with dark paint to look like a black person (That’s called “blackface” and it’s racist.)

Things that are okay:

  1. Think it’s fun to get together with your not-Mexican friends and get drunk on the fifth of May? Guess what? You can drink any day (if you're over 21)! Go ahead! Drink the tequila and eat food. Do it without a sombrero. I believe in you. (But drink responsibly. Responsible adults can drink and make merry without getting drunk. Just FYI.)
  2. Think geishas are beautiful? Guess what? You can read about the geisha tradition and consider how you are helping your own cultural traditions live on through art and music and conversation.
  3. Want to wear something festive and cute and appropriate on a hot day? Try a sundress. Sundresses can be worn by both men and women. Just ask my friends who went to a certain liberal arts college in Ohio and then all went to seminary and are now your pastors. 
  4. Want to honor the incredible contributions and diverse cultures of the first peoples? You can support cultural centers of various tribes, or contribute to tribal colleges. You can read Native American and First Nations literature. You can even get your books at a bookstore owned by a Native American award-winning author! It’s called Birchbark Books and it’s in Minneapolis. You can work for self-determination of all indigenous peoples. You can form actual relationships with people who are indigenous.
  5. Want to honor the Jackson 5? Wear the clothes that look like they are from that period and carry around a Jackson 5 LP. How clever would that be? It is completely not necessary to put on a wig and paint your face. (Because… it’s racist! Yes, you’re learning.)
  6. Want to dress like you love your body? You can do it! Yes! Show it off. Why not? Bodies are gifts from God. How about you wear a modern take on traditional clothing from your own ethnic background? If you’re more of a designer clothing person, there are some incredible contemporary American designers who are Asian American/Native American/African American/Latinx. Support them and their work!
  7. Want to have some fun? Have your friends over and play a great game like “The Game for Good Christians” or watch a wholesome movie like “Big Hero 6” (my new favorite). It is completely possible to have fun and never insult an entire culture. I’ve been doing it for years.  

Yes, it's possible for people of color who do not identify as white to participate in cultural appropriation. STOP IT. It's embarrassing. We all internalize white supremacy and white supremacist behavior. If you see someone engaging in appropriation, say something.

If any of this is confusing and you think I’m being too judgy, I recommend a little internet reading. I’ve included a few starter links below.

"What's Wrong With Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm"
"What is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong? "
"5 things white people need to learn about cultural appropriation"

Next spring, we’ll be putting out a book for churches about racism. Stay tuned!

Late Addition: My in-house consultant pointed out that this post lacks solid grounding in an analysis centered around the larger issue of white supremacy in the U.S. White supremacy as a framework explains how some people believe it is acceptable to have "white trash" or "redneck" parties. When certain ideals are normalized, pinning the responsibility for bigotry on poor white people, or deciding poor white people are an acceptable class of people to mock, becomes a diversion from the real problems of white supremacy and widening economic inequality. Poor white people are trapped, too. "White trash" or "redneck" parties are offensive and classist. Don't do it. Instead, work for measures that will reduce economic inequality, increase educational opportunities, increase affordable housing and transportation availability, and invest in the growth of jobs that pay a living wage.

P.S. And if you’re more upset by this post and my judgmental tone than you are by the refugees fleeing Syria and Libya and not finding any country willing to take them, you need to re-order your priorities.

P.P.S. About Whitworth University: I chose to attend a different school for my undergraduate education in part because when I was applying for admission, the college (it was a college then) didn’t allow gay and lesbian students space to meet on campus. When your mom serves an open and affirming congregation that marches in Seattle’s Gay Pride parade, that kind of thing is important to you. But strides have been made. It’s a legitimately good place. They hosted a conversation on race and gender at which I was a speaker, and they are very hospitable. I have childhood friends and minister colleagues who are Whitworth alumni. This is not a Whitworth problem. This is an American problem.


  1. I would like to know about your opinion on a Japanese/American couple made about "Can a foreigner wear a kimono?". I think there are some great points you made in the article, but cultural appropriation remains a constant throughout world history (both negatives/positives). Religions is a great example that has been culturally adopted and changed in every country (ex: Buddhism, Buddhism originated from India and differentiates in different regions of Asia, would that not be an appropriation?). Maybe you can explain further what you mean? Because if cultural appropriation seems to come off only as a negative that seems a bit one-sided. There have been positives to sharing cultures (adopting aspects from one another). In fact I think the U.S. culture should adopt many aspects of others, we can all learn from one another. :)

    1. Yes, cultural sharing is common throughout the world, but what I find helpful about the links I shared above on cultural appropriation in the U.S. is how they point to what makes something problematic. And here, what makes something problematic, is that it is often not sharing for mutual enrichment, but stealing in the context of unequal power/colonialism and in the context of racism. Does that make sense? I have certainly participated in cultural sharing, because I think learning from each other is so helpful, but I'm mindful that power dynamics and prejudice are still very real.

    2. Another thought I had after watching the video is that oftentimes it is people like me (with multiple generations in the U.S.) who are more offended by cultural appropriation than are recent immigrants. I think that has to do with living with racism, and understanding the long-standing historical legal frameworks by which racism is upheld and reinforced. That doesn't mean one of us is wrong, and one of us is right. I think it goes to show how diverse the community can be, and the difference that perspective can make.