Friday
Sep302016

The brighter side of cultural appropriation

Disney pulled it's Polynesian themed Moana costume, apparently because of complaints that the costume changed children's skin color and complaints that Disney is culturally insensitive.

Disney has a history of cultural insensitivity.  Not much doubt about that.  And readers should realize I personally have cultural insensitivity that occassionally boarders on aspbergers syndrome.

But as a kid’s costume, I'm of mixed feeling on this costume thing.  Polynesian / Hawaiian culture has extraordinary value - just ask any culturally appropriating surfer, Hawaiian shirt owner, outrigging canoe user or in a more slow stately aluminum form: the pontoon.  And that just scratches the surface - Polynesian culture offers great food and has had lasting artistic contributions to ‘western’ culture.

Yes, colonialism nearly destroyed Polynesian culture.  Nearly took every scrap of land.  Nearly eliminated a population.  Disney should take the effort not to add hurt or harm to this great culture, or fictionalize a culture so much as to wash away cultural values and beliefs.  But sharing Polynesian culture, elevating it, appreciating it - does not marginalize, dilute, destroy or damage.  And so in that vein, I return to the kid’s costume.  

If a child wants to wear Moana because Moana is one of their hero’s - I say let them.  Let a child choose their hero’s and don’t add racial boundary.  Skin color should have nothing to do with what makes someone a hero.  Unlike blackface stealing jobs and leaching community resources, I struggle to see how "Blackface" on a kid engaged in hero worship harms by normalizing exposure.

Nearly a decade ago my blonde son wanted to dress up and act as Jesse Owens, the 1936 Olympian who was once the fastest man alive, for a living biography school project.  After getting a concerned note from a teacher we steered him away from this selection.  Jesse Owens earned his place in history at Hitler's Olympics, but nobody represented Jesse Owens at the school on presentation day.  In retrospect, I believe that our intervention was precisely the wrong thing to do.

I fear many of the social media call’s to ban this costume are little more than cloistered racism and cultural white washing on the order of be white, act white, wear white or else.  Really, should anyone care if a kid falls in love with Hawaiian shirts, surfing and Polynesian mythology?   I personally would be more concerned if they fell in love with a purple dinosaur with an intensely annoying theme song - but that's me. 

"We all have dreams.  But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort"  - Jesse Owens

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