Well shoot, costumes can be complicated (and no, not just because “liberals” try to make things complicated). A friend asked me the other day whether it was cultural appropriation for someone to dress as a Viking. This came (whether coincidentally or intentionally) in the wake of several discussions on Facebook that I either witnessed or participated in about, for example, the furor over the names of sports teams (“Redskins”, “Indians”) and the (really unbelievable…) blackface costumes that have shown up online in the last week (I mean REALLY??? Not just blackface, but TRAYVON MARTIN??? How anyone thinks we are post-racial, I’ll never know…). I don’t want to get into a huge discussion about the history of racism, imperialism, and colonialism in our country/Western civ. (check here for an overview of colonialism and postcolonial theory), but I’ll note a few points that I think are fairly obivous (and yet overlooked), even if yes, things tend to be pretty complicated in the real world (and since Heritage Studies is something I dig into every now and then, I may revisit this topic one of these days).
For one, there IS a history of oppression that our society is built on, and however much you believe we are “past that,” our literature, cultural semiotics, tropes, etc, are all built up on the layers of everything that has come before, and YES, in a literate culture with the “long memory” that we have (a necessary element of what we call civilization), you ARE responsible for being aware of the history of representation that you draw on (and sure, we can change things despite this baggage–but not by ignoring the baggage). So no, you don’t get to make jokes about monkeys and lynching when you are criticizing prominent black figures (and holy smokes, I DID see this on facebook–still blows me away)–nor do you get to wear blackface. To continue on to the parallel, or lack thereof, between dressing as a Viking and dressing as, say, an Indian: a community which is reasonably well established as or within the dominant group, which then creates a totemic icon (or a costume) from a barbaric figure associated with its own past, is NOT the same as the dominant culture creating a totemic icon based on a historically subjugated group–whatever other complicating factors there may be (I believe I’ve heard that the Redskins were named out of affection for a native american coach)–let’s keep the inherent difference between the two situations in mind. And while my family (for example) loves telling “swedish jokes” about our own heritage, let’s keep in mind that the Scandinavian American heritage is not something that is a disadvantage anymore–sure, go far enough back and you find a time when jokes about dumb, thieving (!) Swedes were told–and not by the Swedes themselves. And I’ve even found a letter quoted from over a century ago in which a “WASP” foreman complained that it was only him and a couple other “white men,” plus a dozen or so Swedes (!!!) out in the forest working (no joke–I knew about the Irish, but apparently Swedes were not “white” during the immigration before the turn of the century). But you know, we tell “ethnic” jokes about ourselves now because there IS no threat to (or rather, threat perceived in) our ethnicity. That said, in one discussion I followed online, a latina woman complained about how hypersensitive white people will make a big fuss when people like her would rather not stress out over something she perceives as not a big deal–and while I don’t agree wholeheartedly with her (I know folks with the same claim on the problem that she has who WOULD be offended, so who do I listen to?), her point was driven home by the fact that a “white liberal” (sorry for the scare quotes) initially talked over her a bit… until she noted that she was latina (the “white liberal” had been treating her as another white person till then), the (totally valid) implication being that she had more of a right to comment in that situation.
So yeah, it’s complicated, but it’s still worth thinking about–better to navigate this conscientiously, even if no absolute, self-evident ethical solution is available in all cases (but dang, it’s pretty obvious that you DON’T dress in blackface and mock the death of a young black teenager, whatever you think of the trial). I mean, dressing like a ninja, an indian, a cowboy, or a viking for halloween–to a certain extent the fact that all of those are equally “cool” and valid costumes for kids these days can certainly give us hope that, when we are at our best, we can both embrace the Otherness of our varied ethnic heritages as well as understand ourselves as all part of the same community, enjoying the cool stuff that comes out of our various pasts. That said, dressing in thick glasses, a bowl cut, putting in big fake front teeth and squinting is still a way of mocking “Asian-ness” that we would “get” (meaning, we would understand that someone who is not asian is dressing up in a way that turns asians into stock, stereotyped, comic figures)–there is no equivalent for Scandinavian Americans. OK, in my family, and the church I grew up in, we would “get it” if someone dressed up as Ole or Lena, and spoke with a cheesy Swedish accent–but that is not a stereotype available to (and used by) the culture at large. So no, it isn’t the same, and it won’t be for a long time. And liberals pointing these things out is not what keeps these stereotypes around. OK, off my soapbox… (No wait, one more point: Really, wouldn’t we comment on it if an asian or black or hispanic kid dressed as a Viking? Like “Why are you doing that, kid?” Whereas we take it for granted that a white kid might dress as a ninja…or star as one in a movie, for that matter. Maybe I’m wrong here, esp. now that Thor is not just for comic book geeks any more…)
And finally, I hope you enjoy my illustration for today! The colonial subaltern in a galaxy both temporally and spatially distant (a long time ago and far away, in case that is not clear), oppressed by the (mostly white, now that I think about it…) humans, and seen as funny, stupid, cuddly, comic, and primitive in culture, religion, and technology (in other words, culturally invalid relative to us civilized, but certainly more interesting and spectacle-worthy because of it) even by their human allies–but the table is turned here! This speculative and creative fuzzy-wuzzy has hit on a new mode of narrative, one which creates entire universes with histories totally unlike the Real World, and so he (or she? I don’t know how to tell…) has come up with a universe (and an entire franchise, I’m sure) in which there is a human galaxy, both temporally and spatially distant, with a whole history, coming down to one blue-green planet, on which there is a largish peninsula far to the north, where humans lived in a barbaric warrior society, clothed in primitive metal armor, hacking each other to pieces, raiding the weak, and sailing the world in flimsy yet fearsome wooden ships… and for halloween, this fuzzy-wuzzy has decided to dress up as one of these fictional “Vikings.” Movies, toys, novels, and comic books to follow, I bet.