The autumn season is upon us once again, ushering in a calendar full of holidays that always seem to generate an astonishingly tasteless display of cultural insensitivity.
First up is Columbus Day, where we celebrate the supposedly great deeds of a hapless sailor whose record of crimes against humanity stack up to one of the darkest chapters in human history. Then there's Thanksgiving, when we're perversely asked to celebrate the kindness and generosity of the Native American people who would become our victims in a long and brutal war.
And don't forget the holiday right in the middle. Halloween has somehow trumped all other holiday celebrations as the most vile expression of cultural insensitivity. Exactly when did this once innocent celebration of all things spooky turn into an anything goes free-for-all of degrading racial stereotypes? I don't know, but it seems to get worse each year.
These days no Halloween season is complete without stories of overprivileged frat boys parading through college campuses in black face. Then there are the hateful anti-Muslim themed outfits and the seemingly endless array of get-ups portraying demeaning Asian and Latino stereotypes.
While it's clear some of these costumes are intended to be offensive and cruel, there are many holiday revelers who naively make an insensitive costume choice completely blind to their error. An incident last Halloween forced me to take a deeper look at the holiday and the often offensive practice of cultural appropriation.
I was asked by a local immigrant rights group to DJ for their Halloween fundraiser. A few days before the event we found out that the bar hosting the party had asked all staff members to dress in "cowboy and Indian" themed attire. The news sparked a heated debate within the activist organization. Some members felt a group that existed to fight institutional racism shouldn't stand by silently in tacit support of this blatant example of insensitive cultural appropriation. So we decided to express our concerns to the bar's owner, a middle — aged, blonde, blue-eyed white male who complicated the issue by declaring that his great, great – grandmother was a Native American — and if he wasn't offended at the costume choice, why should we be?
The meeting ended in a stalemate and despite our concerns, we decided to go through with the party. But I continued to think about the bar owner's insistent claim that his family heritage — whether real or not — gave him the right to engage in cultural appropriation.
The conversation led me to question my own choices in life. So much of my work as a music columnist and a DJ involves an appropriation of cultures I have no direct lineage with. I've wondered before if I am being just as insensitive as we had deemed the bar owner to be.
I certainly hope not. All of my artistic activities are born from a love of the cultures I choose to work with and I'm motivated by an overriding desire to educate others about their significance and beauty. If I write an article about an Ethiopian musician or DJ a set of Ethiopian music, it's the product of years of lovingly motivated research.
Does that validate my use of cultural appropriation? I don't know. But I'm glad I had the occasion to ask that question and reflect on the idea. And I would ask you to do the same when contemplating your Halloween attire. And if you see a friend making an offensive costume choice, I would hope you'd ask them to reflect on the question too. If we ever hope to overturn the effects of America's relationship with oppressive racism we need to start by examining our own behavior.