This morning I read an US Weekly piece about the music artist Ellie Goulding from “Burn” being attacked on Instagram for wearing an imitation Native American headdress for Halloween. The singer claims that she hadn’t worn the costume yet when the photos were posted. Of course this isn’t the first time Native American “inspired” outfits got someone into trouble; remember a couple of years ago when Karlie Kloss walked the catwalk for Victoria’s Secret in a full length headdress? (read about it here. Yeah, they were serving “rain dance refresher” cocktails at the “pow wow” themed afterparty.) Halloween seems to be the time when people of color suddenly go from being actual living breathing beings to someone’s first place in a costume contest.
News Flash: People of Color Are NOT Playthings
That’s right folks, gone are the days when one could dress up as an “Injun” or “Mariachi Band”or a “pickaninny.” You might think its “all just in fun” or that “everyone does it” but people of color en masse are saying enough, and frankly, we don’t do it, or if we do, its certainly to make a point. This is the danger of the commercialism of a holiday like Halloween. For years, it has taken advantage of the de-humanization of people of color so that along side the other animal costumes (gorilla, wolf, etc.) you had Aunt Jemima and Charlie Chan. Maybe these kind of outrageous stereotypes are gone, but the impulse of mocking appropriation that put them out there is not. There is still a lot of work to do in letting people know that the era where people of color are voiceless, nameless myths that are great fodder for a joke is OVER.
People of color are redefining what “harmless play” is and that’s a good thing. Some older generations squawk at a lost innocence. I would argue that it is more of a lost ignorance. Suddenly (for some) everyone actually matters. I remember years ago being told that I couldn’t play Elvis Presley in a review show. My argument was that if they were going to have a white woman playing Tina Turner in the same show, than surely I could also play Elvis. Alas I did not win that battle because of course Elvis Presley (who was dead by that point) actually matters and Tina Turner (who is still very much alive…thank you very much) does not.
What is happening is that the core sense of what it means to have an identity of any kind is changing. Not only in terms of intersectionality, but even in terms of the big ticket single identifiers (Black, Hispanic, Asian, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Jewish…etc.) But in this identity revolution it seems sometimes as if people who identify as white are being left behind. It is as if privilege has been a drug that has numbed the sense of self identity among many whites, particularly older generations. It is extremely easy for someone like me, African American, gay…to look at the actions of Ellie Goulding and say “oh HELL no!” And I would tend to believe that goes for pretty much most people of color. Our senses are open and raw to this kind of hurt. But I know for a fact (having had the conversation about the fashion show) that any number of white people I know, wouldn’t see the harm…wouldn’t get it. This is the morphine drip of privilege at work. How can you feel a sensibility that is blocked? There are those (mostly millennials) who are coming off of the anesthetic. They immediately get what it means when you ape someone else’s culture. But Ellie Goulding is 27 years old. Granted, she’s British; she has no personal cultural context for a relationship with Native Americans. But in this age of global internet, it is difficult to make any excuse for an international public figure being this unaware.
I’ve been told by some people reacting to the people of color revolution that it seems like an awful lot of work. This is, I believe, the reason that we even use the term “people of color”; it is shorthand for the dominant culture…much more digestible. I’ve always thought, however, considering world demographics that this terminology should be the other way around and that we should be referring to the global minority as “people of non-color.” I guess, in certain minds, recognizing each and every person for who they are and how they identify and trying to be authentic with them just isn’t as sexy as being able to make the odd Chinese or Indian joke. My response is this: think about how much work it has been to live invisible, mocked at, objectified, fetishized, stereotyped and generally put down for 400+ years?
The rest of the world is a little tired and ready to move on.
Oh, and speaking of sexy…don’t get me started on the whole “Sexy(…)” costume trend and the horrific stuff that says about what we think of women. UGH! But that’s another blog.