“We’re a Culture, Not a Costume”

STARS: Students Teaching Against Racism, an organization at Ohio University developed the following poster campaign saying, ”These posters act as a public service announcement for colored communities. It’s about respect, human dignity, and the acceptance of other cultures (these posters simply ask people to think before they choose their Halloween costume). Although some Halloween costumes aren’t as racist as the blackface minstrel shows back in the day, they harken to similar prejudices. What these costumes have in common is that they make caricatures out of cultures, and that is simply not okay.”

Given my own work on video games and how race, gender, and sexuality are mediated by said cyborg mediums, I have been thinking and writing a lot about what Lisa Nakamura calls “identity tourism” or what might be more broadly called cultural appropriation.  Though I do not have yet an adequate or substantive response, I do want to flag for the time being the near impossibility of returning to any pre-appropriated or pre-appropriating state.  Much akin the challenges of decolonization in an increasingly globalized and neocolonized world, the idea of deappropriation seems moot.  Therefore, what can be done or what must be done?

While I understand, commend, and support the STARS posters and project, I am left thinking about the ambivalence of the call for deappropriation: on the one hand, the dressing up as either in homage or in parody or in fantasy further reinforces stereotypes, racialized and racist logics, and the invisible power of (often heteronormative white) privilege, and on another hand, the desire to locate “culture” as bounded, owned, or seated in a particular body, an authentic biology runs the risk of essentalism and determinism.  Let me say again that these are useful provocations and profoundly necessary conversations to have.  They remind me of the cycles of debate, consternation, defensive posturing, and violence that spring up around whether or not a white, middle-class chef can be a master of Mexican food or whether a Japanese rapper can use the n-word or whether a privileged straight man can be feminist or queer.

What is important here is that the message of the WACNAC posters is not lost: we must be able to talk about why the above ambivalence is so often ignored, dismissed, or rerouted through discourses of reverse discrimination and wounded whiteness.  (Or defensive responses of “It’s just a costume!” or “It’s not real!” or “It’s just a game!” )  I don’t have an easy set of answers.  As I said, I am still thinking through them myself.  However, I recognize that appropriation is always about power and too often violence–and this doesn’t boil down to the ability to dress up or not.  As someone who often dresses up in “medieval” fantasy garb to participate in a live-action RPG or to go to a Ren Fest, the irony of the act is not lost on me.  What makes my taking on of western European dress, often aristocratic mien, and fantasies of heroic (heroified) agency different than someone else’s desire to play a samurai or Zulu warrior or vampiric dominatrix?  I guess I am being too glib.  These experiences, of course, are different but they are too often read as, perceived as, even defended as not different — since both are about playing in costume, since both are inscribed by the “magic circle” of a game or fantasy, and both seem to be about a kind of possessive individual agency.  But these masks, these roles, and these performances are not neutral.  And to allow them to obscure, even obliterate the fact that I am a raced, gendered, and queered body playing a raced, gendered, and (potentially) normative body is precisely the problem.  I really want to have a conversation about what is gained and what is lost in these practices of play and performance.

More soon.

P.S. This seemed apropos given that I saw this today via Facebook (with the buried disclaimer “You’re riding a fine line between homage and racism, kids”):

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