Friday, October 28, 2011

Cultures and Costumes

As usually, I'm probably one of the last to pick this up, but that's alright. I'm not trying to win first place - I'm not trying to win much of anything here. This is just my personal little area to sound off on what I feel is wrong, right, or otherwise sideways with the world we live in.

Ever since I've become aware of it (a while back; becoming atheist first alerted me to Christian privilege, having a few gay friends and being genderqueer myself alerted me to cisgender, straight, and indirectly, male privilege, and having explored what other people feel based on skin color by reading their blogs and through my own character in a novel I'm working on has alerted me to White privilege. Being mentally ill and unashamed of it has alerted me to neurotypical privilege. If you name a way to segment a population, there's a privilege for that. The rest fell into place from there), nothing has been more irritating to me than watching someone with no clue about their privilege in society run off at the mouth about it.

I've often said it before. I love the privilege I get for being male, cisgendered (until I open my mouth), believer (until I open my mouth), straight, and White. I love it so much I want to share it with as many people as I can, because they deserve it too. That's what equality is about; it's me giving you what's awarded to me while I keep it, so we can be on an even keel. We're a long way from there, but inch by painful inch, we make progress.

So when I ran across this - "We're a culture, not a costume", I couldn't help but support it.

And then I read the comment thread. By this time, you'd think I would know better, but still...

One of the ways you know you're privileged is when you remark "people make fun of me all the time, why can't I make fun of them?" This is classic derailing technique. It's right up there with "you're taking it too seriously" and "I bet you're fun at a party." There's a number of derailing techniques, but in the long run, what they end up doing is blaming the victim .

And make no mistake. They are victims of abuse in this debate; they're on the receiving end of your cultural prejudices, which are what those costumes represent in their full glory, unabashedly, and they have to deal with you, the one who initiated the whole thing to begin with, telling them to step down because they're "getting worked up over nothing." You purposefully misrepresent their culture and then blame them when they get mad. And not only are you purposefully misrepresenting their culture and their cultural dress, but you're doing it in an almost spiteful way - as a costume for Halloween. Now, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I don't do dress up anymore, but I've dressed up as numerous things in the past. I've been death (a perennial favorite; no, not the Death from Gaiman's Sandman. I'm not that good looking or feminine, but if I was, you know I would), I've been a robot. I've been a ghostly knight (wearing plate-mail), and I've been a dark wizard and Frankenstein. The common thread? None of them are real, aside from the historical accounts of knights and death (non-personified). When I think Halloween, I think scary costumes. I think things like skulls and bats and spiders and such. I think candy, and Halloween cartoon specials.

I don't think offensive costumes directed at a particular (stereotype) of said culture is very much in the Halloween spirit . Halloween is supposed to be fun. There's nothing fun in that.

Let me put this for the readers who don't understand out there in very simple terms: You. Can't. Reduce. An. Entire. Culture. To. A. Single. Fucking. Costume. And if that's too many words and you still don't understand, then it's time to check back into kindergarten.

"But we're not!"

Actually, yes you are.

See, that's part of privilege. These costumes are how the culture has entered your - our - culture. Even if you know that Japanese only save the kimono for special occasions, most people do not. Even more offensive, they see that and they think generic "Asian," without realizing that's asking for a whole hell of a lot of trouble around someone who's Chinese, Korean, Malay, Vietnamese or any other Asian nationality I left out. Depending upon the person, confusing a Chinese person (hell, which type? There's some 30, and I'm probably grossly underestimating, ethnic groups in China; it's not a homogenous nation with homogenous people, and neither is Vietnam or Malaysia for that matter) with a Japanese one can be very hazardous to your health. So, Mr. "they only wear the kimono on special occasions!", Congratulations on you, for having taken the time study enough of a foreign culture to justify your own reinforcing of society's bigotries through your own bigotry by wearing a stereotypical costume.

And that's without getting into the absolutely tasteless "illegal alien jumpsuit" that Target was marketing. I used to shop at Target to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart. I think I might just take my business elsewhere; a business doesn't need to be promoting those stereotypes. People die trying to get across the border. To turn it into a costume, for fun, is macabre and sick in a way that I don't want to be part of.

"But our culture gets made fun of all the time!"

What is your "Culture?" Someone tell me what White "culture" is. I'll wait. Are you ready? It's the dominate culture in the country. It's the culture that every other culture in the world is held up to as a measuring stick. It's popular to say there is no such thing as "White culture," but believe me, there is. White and American are synonymous. That's why you never heard of a "White-American." It's the default assumption that an American is going to be White. So now, think of American culture. Are you having trouble thinking of it? That's because you have privilege. You never have to stop and think about your culture, you're never reminded of it through constant exposures to stereotypes, almost all protagonists in the media are White males, usually with a minority as the sidekick or comic relief. There are a few exceptions, but they're exceptions, not the rule.

But you have a culture. We have a culture as White Americans, and don't think we don't. We use something to measure other cultures against when we judge them. When we craft stereotypes about them, and when we distill their hardships and misinterpret their traditions for our own "fun." With this in matter, does it really matter if our "culture" is made fun of? At the end of the day, our culture is the dominate culture. As such, most jokes that aren't blatant power displays will revolve around our culture by sheer fault of "White America" being the "default" America.

"What about Rednecks? Huh? They get made fun of all the time for being stupid."

Coming from a family of rednecks (that is, broke-ass folk from Kentucky and Virginia), I'd like to point out most of the people who make fun of rednecks are rednecks. Those who don't are engaging in the same power displays that these costumes are engaging in, but in another way - rednecks are not a "race" or even a "culture." Rather, they're a class. More than a few of your jokes making fun of rednecks are jokes that make fun of poor people, with a few exceptions (those making poking fun at people who watch NASCAR and the like). And you'll notice that people don't follow you around in stores under the assumption you'll steal something if you're a redneck. Or ask you to say something in your native language, or where you're from, because you look foreign. Or assume you're a lazy, shiftless (illegal) immigrant.

"What about Black comedians making fun of White people?"

What about it? You're the dominate culture. We're the dominate culture. We were never oppressed by Blacks, or Asians, or any other broad, broad term for a "ethnic" group like we oppressed them. Them making fun of Whites is not nearly as damaging as Whites trying to make fun of them, because we've been making fun of them, and denigrating their culture, for hundreds of years. Because our culture is used as the measuring stick, there is no possible way they can denigrate our culture by making fun of it in the same way that we denigrate theirs by doing the same.

My personal favorite, from the comments:


'there are no pervasive stereotypes for whites'

um.....- Pasty Ginger with no soul
- Dirty French person stinking/ wearing stripes / being a mime/ too lazy to fight
- an alcoholic abusive irishman (apparently for some reason there is noting offensive about this one according to this "COBB" fellow)
- batman, because all white people hate their childhood and dress up in tight plastic at night to feel better."

I can't tell if this is sarcasm or not, but the first one is not a stereotype perpetuated in America I'm very familiar with. However, "gingerism" is a severe problem in some of the commonwealth countries, but not here in the States.The second is a stereotype of the French. The third is a stereotype of the Irish. The fourth must be a joke.

None of those are stereotypes of "White" America. Perhaps French-Americans, or Irish-Americans, but guess what? Until you announce yourself as that, and even afterwards, you have White privilege. You're regarded as "White." You check the "White/Caucasian" box on your tax forms. And while, historically, the Irish have had it hard in America, they don't today. Because you're not Irish today. You're White. And you get all of the privilege that goes along with it. And odds are, you complain when people are "[Insert non-White group here]-American".

"This is all politically correct, you say. It's political correctness stifling freedom of speech. We should be allowed to have our fun at the expense of these minorities and their culture!"

You know what? Let me direct you to my definition of PC - it's the cognitive dissonance you get when someone is saying something they know is hurtful, or doing something they know is wrong in relation to cultures or individuals not of their own group, who do it anyway and instead of internalizing the blame and fixing their own mistake, blame the victim for causing that cognitive dissonance or reminding them that they're being an asshole. In short, accusations of PC are just another form of victim blaming.

So yes, there's plenty of political correctness at work here. You know you're being an asshole. You know you're privileged on some level. But you do it anyway, and you turn around and blame the victim when they remind you of the fact that you're being a privileged asshole. Allow me to be the very first liberal to congratulate you - yes, you are right. It is politically correct. Now do something about that cognitive dissonance in your head, or keep your damn bigoted mouth shut.

And as for Halloween this year, I think I'll go as myself - non-stereotyped gendequeer atheist transhumanist technoprogressive liberal, who is vocal about their beliefs and refuses to bow before any authority not earned. I think I'm frightening enough to the Patriarchy and dominate culture as is without a costume.


  1. More than a few of your jokes making fun of rednecks are jokes that make fun of poor people, with a few exceptions (those making poking fun at people who watch NASCAR and the like).

    I used to think the "trailer park trash" jokes were funny and I've found them more and more disturbing over the years. Some of the tropes of that culture are ridiculous, but many of them are just hallmarks for being poor - which is so wrong to make fun of. In Britain, you see a similar phenomena with "chavs," who are typically lower-class urban folks. This is a good article from the Guardian on the chav phenomena and how socially destructive it is:

  2. Costumes are often caricatures, and it's in rather poor taste to caricatures a (real) race or an (existing) culture.

    OTOH, I'm a little confused with the assumption that _all_ costumes are caricatures, or that _any_ depiction of something in a culture is supposed to somehow represent the entire culture.

    Mariachi bands _actually exist_, for an example in the article. If someone is going as a 'Mexican' and dressed in a mariachi outfit, sure, they're an idiot...but if they're going as a mariachi band member, uh, that's what those guys wear. (Although it's kinda stupid to be a single one of those, and they'd better have an instrument.)

    There's a difference between say 'Don't be a stereotyping ass deliberately mocking a culture' and 'You can never dress as an actual human being at all, in case you're trying to reduce the entire culture they come from to that thing'.

    I don't know, maybe I'm looking at this with too much a theatre background or something. In theatre, dealing with other cultures, you have to be sensitive and not perpetuate stereotypes.

    And I freely admit that something like 75% of the 'dress as another race or culture' costumes are perpetuating stereotypes, and something like 95% of the people _in_ those costumes manage to perpetuating stereotypes even more. And I have no problem with a campaign to point that out.

    OTOH, I have a problem with the idea that dressing as actually existing people, and portraying those people in a non-mocking manner, is somehow bigoted just because they're from a different culture. (While admitting that almost no one _does_ portray them in such a manner. Hint: Talking in an fake accent? Almost certainly bigoted.)