In response to the unfolding events, I published When Did Colleges Become Preschools? Why Yale Students Need to Stop Bitching About Halloween Costumes, This Video Shows Everything That's Wrong With "Safe Space" Protests and Why I Dressed as Microaggressions For Halloween. After each post, I've had interesting and thought-provoking discussions with several people who disagree with me -- and I can genuinely say that I admire their civil and respectful approach. It's admirable that they can discuss something so personal and close to their hearts with such open minds.
In many ways, these discussions have shaped and softened my stance on some of the issues. I believe, for example, that the pain many of these students feel is very real to them -- that they aren't all just "looking for something to be offended by."
But in other ways, they've led me to question my own blind compliance with political correctness. If you'd asked me, going into October, if it's okay to wear a headdress or a bindi, I would have said no. "You're not allowed to wear clothes or hair styles from other cultures -- that's cultural appropriation, and it's wrong." After all, as Franchesca Ramsey so eloquently explains:
Not to mention... the whole "cultural appropriation" thing is getting out of hand. Today, the Washington Post reported that the University of Ottowa has decided to top teaching yoga classes -- even ones specially designed for the physically disabled. Why? It's "insensitive." It's "cultural appropriation."
Yoga comes from India, once a British colony. And now, at one Canadian university, a yoga class designed to include disabled students has been canceled after concerns the practice was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,” according to the group that once sponsored it.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Jennifer Scharf, who taught the class for up to 60 people at the University of Ottawa, said she was unhappy about the decision, but accepted it.
“This particular class was intro to beginners’ yoga because I’m very sensitive to this issue,” she said. “I would never want anyone to think I was making some sort of spiritual claim other than the pure joy of being human that belongs to everyone free of religion.
Or, for another example, I was recently faced with a little "ethical" dilemma. See, my brother (who is white) has been living in China for about four years. He is dating a Chinese woman named Eva. Each time they come to the States, they bring me Chinese fans, Chinese candy, Chinese board games and Chinese clothing. They're gorgeous!
Today, I wanted to wear one of the dresses they gave me. I was delighted when I put it on -- it's so pretty! Yet I was nervous leaving the house in something that was vaguely Chinese-looking -- especially because it had two peacock feathers on the drawstring! Given all the hyper-sensitivity and outrage that's been going around this month, I couldn't help but wonder if I might also piss off Native Americans. I mean, it wasn't a headdress. But it did have feathers...
According to cultural appropriation, I shouldn't be allowed to wear the Chinese dresses my brother and his girlfriend gave me. Right? Or maybe I am... but only... when Andrew and Eva are in town? Because then it counts as a "cultural exchange"?
But after everything I've read this month, I've come to a new conclusion: that these protestors condemn a basic constitutional right. The only voice they care about -- the only voice they think has a "right" to be heard -- is their own. They don't care if others in their group agree with them (one minority student reported being called a "traitor" for attending a free speech conference at Yale). They don't care if others in other groups agree with them. They think I shouldn't be allowed to write poems about free speech, and they don't think I should be allowed to wear the dress my own brother gave me.
To that I respectfully say, "Fuck you." You don't get to decide when, where and how I can enjoy the gifts given to me by my brother, whom I only see once every two or three years. They mean one thing to you. They mean something completely different to me. You don't get to decide whether a white boy (whose godparents are Costa Rican, and who grew up in Costa Rica) is allowed to call soccer "futbol." You don't get to demand that I resign from my job, just because you didn't like my word choice or disagreed with my opinion about affirmative action.
So I did it. I wore the dress. And you know what happened?
Nothing. No one broke down sobbing when they saw me. No one's existence was erased because of my outfit. And! At the end of the day, I met with one of my students, whose mother is from China. When she saw me, her whole face lit up, and she exclaimed, "Your dress is so beautiful! I love it! It is SO beautiful!" Almost as though, instead of finding it unforgivably offensive, she found joy in seeing a style that reminded her so much of home.
In her infamous Halloween email, Erika Christakis and her husband suggested to students that if they see a costume they found offensive, they had the option of either ignoring it (remember when you were seven, and your little brother used to stick his fingers in your face to be obnoxious, and your mom would advise you, "Just ignore him!") or telling the person they're bothering you. People got all upset about this -- in the protestors' own words:
We were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding.
"Hey, just so you know, a lot of Mexicans would be upset by your costume -- it seems like you're making fun of stereotypes, instead of celebrating the culture."
"I'd be interested to know why you picked that particular costume."
"Did you happen to see the Multicultural Club's posters about why cultures make bad costumes?"
"I was a terrible history student, so I don't blame you for not knowing this, but blackface is actually pretty offensive. It used to be used in minstrel shows to make fun of black people -- and was used in film to make white people 'look black' so they wouldn't have to hire black actors. I love Nicki Minaj, and you clearly put a lot of work into your costume... but I think a lot of people would feel more comfortable if you washed off your face."
(Because there is a 99% chance these people have no idea they're doing something that you subjectively find hurtful or offensive. Most people are not overtly, explicitly racist. They aren't wearing that sombrero to oppress you.)
Well, to be fair, I guess those weren't just words. They were words that embody some basic communication skills that are extremely valuable, both socially and professionally. These include:
Face saving. Instead of "calling out" someone's racist intentions, give them a chance to acknowledge and accept your message without making them feel like they're being attacked or putting them on the defensive.
Reframing. Similar to face saving... but with tangible benefits to you. According to decades of psychology research (as well as personal experience), the vast, vast majority of the time people are doing something that bothers you, they have no idea it's bothering you. So instead of looking at someone taking a yoga class and assuming that they must be doing that to erase your existence and demean you... practice cognitive reframing.
Instead of thinking, "She's racist for appropriating our culture," try thinking:
"Maybe her parents work for the government, and she grew up in Mexico."
"Maybe she just got back from a trip to Trinidad, and she she can't stop thinking about her trip."
"Maybe she doesn't understand that people like me would find that hurtful."
"Maybe she thinks it's beautiful -- and that's fine. She's not hurting me, and she has a constitutional right to wear whatever she wants."
Instead of thinking, "He could never understand my pain or experience because he's white," try thinking:
"Just because he's white, doesn't mean he was never bullied or judged based on how he looked."
"90% of disabilities are invisible."
"His living grandfather could be a holocaust survivor who lost everything while he was in a concentration camp."
"I wonder if he's ever felt unwelcome or unsafe in school after seeing a swastika carved into a desk."
"For all I know, he was kicked out of Catholic school for bringing his boyfriend to prom."
Because, guess what? You don't know. You don't know anything about this person -- except that, statistically, they probably are not intentionally trying to upset you. And that lots of people in your group would be totally okay with what the person is doing. Telling yourself that your experience is automatically worse than theirs, and they automatically have a better life than you, free of struggles and hardship... Well, that's just ignorant.
And, you know what? I'm not the only person who feels this way. Facebook recently suggested that I attend the Embassy Meeting of Minds "Cultural Appropriation" - Is It Always a Bad Thing for Society talk. According to their event page:
"Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon. This is largely seen to be the case when it is the aspects of an oppressed culture that is being adopted by another less oppressed culture”.
It’s common to see blanket arguments against cultural appropriation. But does anyone really have the right to own an idea? What are the actual harms that certain forms of cultural appropriation can leave on oppressed or minority groups, and might there be forms of cultural appropriation that are less bad than others? In fact, is there a valid argument for supporting cultural or racial appropriation? If we accept transgender culture why are we so disturbed by transracial movements? What are the moral motives underlying these asymmetrical norms?
Anyway. Long story short, I think that you are entitled to your feelings and opinions and experiences. You should feel free to express them -- here, on my blog (I love a good conversation, and, unlike Everyday Feminism, I won't delete your comments unless you are a bully or a spammer), or in your local newspaper, or on your own blog (I use Weebly, which is a great platform for new bloggers).
But I am also entitled to my opinions. I would never overtly threaten or oppress someone, but I have the right to decide what I wear, what music I listen to (or perform), what I eat and how I want to exercise. I believe that cognitive and communication skills like reframing are important, and that the healthiest thing you can be is present and mindful. Instead of protesting yoga because of colonialism, which is going to make people think you're a hysterical crybully... why don't you develop a research-based (rather than emotions-based) opinion about how to improve education for minorities -- and then take action? Did you actually improve anyone's life by getting rid of yoga (or sombreros, or whatever)? Or do you think your group would have been better served by empowering and preparing people in your group by, oh, I dunno. Off the top of my head:
- Encouraging the administration to replace introductory-level lectures with smaller sections, since lectures help white students more than students of color
- Developing some quick self-affirmation exercises for students of color (or even all students) to complete during orientation -- thereby closing the achievement gap, increasing their GPAs, number of emails sent to professors per week, and decreasing dropout rates
- Recruiting gifted students of color to volunteer in preschools near you -- research shows that the best possible way to close the achievement gap is through early childhood education and positive role models
- Organizing a free (or low-cost) summer program for minority students near you -- since research also shows that differences in academic achievement are almost exclusively due to differences in summer learning. This would be an amazing way to level the playing field and have an impact on the next generation -- while helping you develop amazing skills in management, fundraising, sales, marketing and more
- Picketing outside of football games -- high school, college and professional football are exploitative, and the boys and men who play put themselves at risk for a horrible and early death -- plus, according to former Stanford student and current Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, there is a lot of pressure for student-athletes to see themselves as athletes first, and then students
- Petitioning top companies to explicitly recruit students of color for jobs and internships
- Something else (leave a comment!)
Let's focus on embracing cultural exchange, so we can work together to make changes that really matter.