Cultural appropriation is a symptom of white supremacy
Views 26 | Time to read: 4 minutes | Uploaded: 10 - 24 - 2018 | By: Caleb Rodriguez
For this year’s annual dodgeball tournament, WAC posted what was meant to be an innocuous promotional video. Donned in a mustache, a sombrero, and a zarape, one student appeared to be costumed as a Mexican man. The problem in this situation does not ultimately reside with the student who wore the costume, with WAC, or even with Westmont itself. The real problem is a historic proliferation of white supremacy that persists into the present.
When a white person dresses up as a Mexican—especially when they are alongside others dressed as cartoonish animals and giant fruit—it communicates that being Mexican is as frivolous and as insignificant as a dancing banana. Being Mexican becomes a caricature: a figure that creates a monolith of an entire group of people, stripping away their complexity and their humanity in the process.
In the Jim Crow South during the early 1900’s, caricatures of Black people were ubiquitous. As Dr. David Pilgrim, professor of sociology at Ferris State University, describes, two of these were the “Coon” and the “Sambo,” each depicting Black men as either “lazy and innately corrupt” or “child-like and helpless.” The “Mammy” caricature represented the “good negro”—obsequious, docile, and tolerable, like a pet. Each of these caricatures functioned to justify slavery and, eventually, Jim Crow laws in the South, reinforcing the belief that Black people couldn’t survive on their own due to their intrinsic debasement and helplessness.
As history unfolded, these caricatures were printed in newspapers, percolated into colloquial language, portrayed in film, and even ended up naming a local restaurant: Sambo’s.
In the 1990’s, a study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center to gauge sentiment toward Black identity found that 78% of non-Black respondents believed that Black people “prefer to live off of welfare,” 62% believed that Black people are more likely to be lazy, and approximately half believed that Black people are inherently violent or are less intelligent than white people.
The white supremacist convictions of slave owners, thus, continue to reside in our perception of people of color, even though “we have had a Black president” and “segregation is no longer written into law.” The vessel? A seemingly innocuous “costume.”
Cultural appropriation doesn’t seem like a “big deal” because it happens all the time; we’ve become blind to it. Some even question whether resisting appropriation is equivalent to an opposition to cultural exchange. It is vital to celebrate and share in other cultures to broaden our understanding of the diversity of God’s image. However, simply putting on a costume that betokens an entire group of people does not take into account the dignity of the people, the significance of the culture, or the history surrounding racist imagery.
If Westmont truly wants to be involved in racial justice and to support its students of color, we must acknowledge the racism that lies within our institution--the racism that happens unintentionally. We must also go further than an apology. We must do more than simply say “we care about students of color” and “value diversity.” When controversy around racism erupts, we must do actual work to educate ourselves about the history of race so that we will be better equipped to recognize racism and care for students of color in the future.
It’s easy to forget that the lawmakers who wrote slavery into law did not don white hoods or carry torches, that the white suburbanites who protested integration didn’t brandish Nazi flags, that racism was never solely carried out by the white person who held the whip. It’s systemic, it’s obscure, and it’s everywhere. Sometimes, you just have to take a second look in order to see it.