Many kids will bring their favorite characters to life this Halloween. However, if you’re a kid inspired by Maui, the Polynesian figure depicted in the upcoming Disney movie “Moana,” you’re out of luck thanks to the politically correct crusaders against freedom of speech and expression.
Halloween is the time that regular Janes and Joes dress up as the superhero, TV or movie character, or occupation of their fantasies. Wigs, makeup, and unusual outfits are all part of the fun of becoming something you’re not in daily life. That is exactly what the cultural appropriation police want to stamp out. They are already trolling campuses and department store websites for their next targets.
Disney recalled their Maui boys’ costume after outrage erupted on social media that the full-length brown trousers, long-sleeve shirt covered in “tattoos,” and skirt of leaves was racist. Allowing children to pretend to be another race is a “new-version blackface,” according to one critic.
Meanwhile, on college campuses the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign is picking up steam again this year. Started back in 2011 at Ohio University, we learn from a series of posters that it’s not okay to wear glasses with fake lenses painted with narrow eyes and balance a bowl of rice on stack of books. Penn State’s student government unanimously approved a resolution calling for posters to be displayed throughout campus. If you think it’s no big deal, ask former Yale University professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis, who gave up their posts after arguing the university shouldn’t restrict students from wearing costumes some might find offensive.
Send These Crazies Back to the Crypt
At issue is cultural appropriation. A good friend explained that cultural appropriation peddles someone else’s traditions for profit without attribution or having to shoulder any of the negatives associated with it. Think of Kylie Jenner’s doo-rag and the runway models at the Marc Jacobs show in dreadlocks during New York Fashion Week, who were accused of “hijacking” the styles and customs of African-Americans without acknowledging their origins and ignoring our socio-economic struggles. What my brothers and sisters fail to see is that adapting our hairstyles or clothing into mainstream culture is an opportunity for appreciation, not cultural pilfering.
This manufactured uproar over costumes and hairdos is an extension of a hyper-sensitive culture that draws a distinction between cultural appreciation (okay) and cultural appropriation (not okay). Appropriation specifically refers to the white Western world co-opting minority cultures. It earns public shaming on social media and prompts the expungement of activities that could offend.
Student leaders on one Ottawa campus yanked a free yoga class, while Dartmouth College cancelled a Cinco de Mayo fundraising event, both on the grounds they unfairly appropriated minority cultures. Worse, the situation turned violent for a white male San Francisco State student who was physically accosted because of his dreadlocks.
The cultural appropriation witch hunt is a spillover from the assault on free speech that’s occurring throughout our society, but especially on college campuses. Academics masterfully inculcate students with the idea that freedom of speech should be relegated to a few square yards in campus “free speech zones.” Opposing and even upsetting opinions must be eradicated and well-meaning actions to build bridges across cultures are rebuffed as an infringement on “comfortable learning.”
Cultural Appropriation Is Cultural Appreciation
Exchanging clothing, food, and practices used to be a celebrated aspect of interconnectedness. College was a place where young people got to experience other people’s cultures through foreign exchange programs and even ethnic cuisine in dining halls, with the goal of fostering respect and understanding that carried over into our broader society. As one of the Yale professors penned, “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
Freedom of speech and tolerance used to stand side-by-side, permitting every person to think and speak freely knowing that the listener doesn’t have to agree, but respects their right to speak. George Orwell said “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Now, this ideal is being undermined as the desire not to offend increasingly controls our culture.
As a black woman born in the Caribbean, I am about as offended by a white kid sporting dreadlocks as I am by Kylie’s cornrows: Zero. Anyone who wants to make a costume out of my skin color for a day or borrow my culture’s hairstyles has every right to do so. While some may feel offended, the U.S. Constitution guarantees no one the right not to be offended, so instead of wasting time on social media, these folks should expend energy elsewhere.
After all, communities of color have far bigger problems, particularly the black community. Despite economic gains, blacks still struggle to catch up other racial groups. We suffer unemployment twice the national average, low levels of household wealth, and higher levels of student loan debt.
But shaming and suppression of free speech is not the answer. Instead of griping over who wears our hairstyles, we should be finding economically empowering solutions such expanding access to capital and skills for entrepreneurs, and removing the red tape that makes it hard for hairdressers and barbers, for example, to strike out on their own. Such policy changes would do far more for black people than ripping costumes and hairstyles.
If our hair styles and clothing are the envy of other cultures and adopted into mainstream culture, that is net gain in influence, not a loss on our culture balance sheet.
Patrice Lee Onwuka is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.