This Halloween, my daughter is going to be a dragon. We had a tournament of choices. Raccoon vs Druid (Raccoon), Dragon vs Pirate (Dragon), Unicorn vs Witch (Unicorn), Unicorn vs Dragon (Dragon), Dragon vs Raccoon (Dragon). So she’s going to be a dragon. At no point in the process did I especially consider political or racial implications. There were none. The closest I came was making an implicit decision not to show her anything princess. But if she’d wanted it, a princess she would have been.
Meanwhile, all hell broke loose in the Cosmopolis:
Recognize this: Moana is a really special character to young girls of Polynesian descent who have never seen a Disney Princess who looks like them, just like how Tiana from The Princess and the Frog likely resonated with young Black women who had waited decades to see themselves represented. White girls have plenty of princesses to choose from — there’s Belle, Ariel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty … you get the idea. If your Caucasian son or daughter doesn’t get to be exactly what they wanted for Halloween, encourage them to take a step back and realize that they’re awash in privileges that the real Moanas and Tianas of the world will likely never see, because the world is full of racist assholes.
And those assholes are becoming even more empowered. Our President is a hate group apologist who tries to ban refugees from seeking asylum in our country, simply because of their faith. Meanwhile, Black Americans continue to be killed by police, and antisemitic voices feel louder and more powerful than they have in decades.
So what does this have to do with a seemingly innocent princess costume? Pretty much everything. It’s important to align with, and stand up for, people of color and minorities, and a key part of that is showing respect for their cultures. To pretend to be a racial, ethnic, or religious minority when you’re not makes light of their history — and reinforces a deeply problematic power dynamic, wherein white people use, then discard, pieces of cultures they’ve subjugated for centuries just because they can.
You don’t have to work too hard to imagine how this went over. My own reaction was mostly informed by the process that we went through. Less a political correctness thing or a racial thing, and more a Dad’s desire to see his daughter happy and being pissy about the prospect of telling her no on account of someone else’s sensibilities.
Granted, I’m not going to let my daughter dress up in blackface or anything truly offensive. But it’s likely to take more than wishy-washy “cultural appropriation” shade. In my (granted, very white) perspective, cultural appropriation in and of itself cannot be an offense. Using stuff from other cultures is what this country is all about. That doesn’t mean I reject any sense of proprietary culture, but there needs to be a more specific reason: “That’s a sacred symbol” or “Doing it that specific way comes across as mocking” or something along those lines. “You’re white, you don’t get to do that” just isn’t going to work. And while “minorities can dress as white characters but not vice-versa” is, to me, an understandable impulse, it’s not a sustainable one. It also runs the risk of promoting white pop culture characters.
This doesn’t create an “anything goes” mandate, and it’s not just blackface (or an inexplicable brown tights) that’s a potential problem. The Cosmo article, though, veers towards (extremely successful) clickbait.
A variation of the article was run under a different headline by Delish. The title says “no” but tucked away towards the end is “But she does say it’s okay to dress kids in ‘official Disney/Warehouse/K-Mart/any other unofficial knock off Moana or Maui costume – minus the face paint, stick-on tattoos and brown skin colored bodysuit.'” (We’ll get to who “she” is in a minute.) According to Vikram, the Cosmo article had something similar but actually deleted it for some reason. This at least solves the concern about disincenting Disney from using non-white characters, and at least provides a path for a white girl to be Moana, but it still starts from a position of “no.”
As an aside, it also has a really weird subhead: “If your kid wears a racist costume … you’re kind of wearing it too.”
That fundamentally misunderstands the entire decision-making process. I am not especially worried about being considered racist because my little girl is wearing a racist costume. I am worried about her being considered racist. To go back to the blackface example, the order of my concern is (1) it would make a large number of people unnecessarily uncomfortable, (2) it would reflect badly on my daughter, and (3) it would reflect badly on me. There is a very, very large gap between #2 and #3. The very assumption that my concern here would be me looking bad is fundamentally strange.
There were two sources for the articles. The first was an account of a mother trying to accommodate her daughter’s desire to be Moana but eventually landing on her being Elsa (from Frozen). The second is far more interesting, because it’s by someone a little less white who actually gives some advice not on whether your daughter can be Moana, but how she can. This one was incredibly helpful, and ultimately is how we should try to best approach the subject. It also does a good job of explaining why not to do the things you shouldn’t do, which a lot of cultural appropriation pieces don’t because they consider “cultural appropriation” to be an argument in itself.
By all means, these are conversations worth having. They just last longer than a couple of words.
Feature Image by Melissa Hillier