rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Cultural appropriation is just fine...unless you're appropriating a cop

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Having weathered the cloud of brightly-hued little sugar-locusts on Saturday, and sent them away satisfied, I chanced upon this video, which is not, I swear, something from Monty Python, but the real thing.

The man on the right, a protester unhappy with the way the Manchester police had been dealing with anti-fracking protests, has been doing stand-up street comedy. In this real-life skit, he wore a plastic bobby's hat and a pig mask -- and was arrested on "suspicion of impersonating a police officer." Way to go, Officer Plod. A fair cop.

(The tipsy world was righted shortly afterwards, but I rather wish the matter had gone to court.)

This real-life bit of Theatre of the Absurd made me reflect on costumes, and their various and sundry social uses. There has been a lot in the news recently about costumes deemed "inappropriate" for Halloween -- blackface, redface, sexy nurses and even sexy PhDs, and on and on.

Yet Halloween costumes are "let's pretend." The phrase is "dressed up as," and I've seen marvellous pretence, both first-hand and on the Internet. But I can understand the grown-up political sensitivities -- the objectifying nature of "pretending to be" Black, or Aboriginal, or imitating (non-satirically) a member of the Israel Defence Forces. There's a whole host of costumes to which we might take exception today, including the aforementioned gender stereotypes. One simply has to let one's darker imagination roam: someone will sell a costume for it.

And yet, from a kid's perspective, it's all innocent. Children are taking part in a time-honoured door-to-door ritual, exploring their imaginations (with parental assistance), acting out something they are not. I find myself wondering how we could ever bridge the divide between groups of people without exercising that same sort of imagination. Listening and observing are essential in that enterprise, but knowledge by itself is not enough -- we need to put ourselves, however imperfectly, in the Other's place. Without that informed imaginative leap of empathy, the Other remains objectified. Yet in an era of identity politics, one attempts to do so at one's peril. "Walk a mile in my moccasins," goes the adage -- but don't try it today.

The nub of the issue is that costumes can also be what people are. So-called national dress, and ceremonial regalia, are costume. By donning these, people join their community: they become what they are signifiying, and this is by no means just a matter of wearing something or other (see, for example: niqab). When others merely play with it, it can cause resentment -- although, well, please. At its worst, appropriating this dress from oppressed people is an expression of white privilege -- stealing the appearance without paying the historical (and current) dues, an unwelcome, ironic misappropriation. (I don't hold with the "cultural appropriation" notion, by the way -- all culture is appropriation.) But sometimes, especially with children, it's a step into the unknown, into the wonder of being someone else. How do we encourage that imaginative capacity, while being mindful of race, class and gender dynamics?

As for donning a white hood or the uniform of this oppressor or that, though, nuh-uh. That's parental neglect at the very least. Intolerable.

I confess that I don't know how to draw all of this to a neat, tied-with-a-bow conclusion. So let me close where I began -- with the bizarre event in Manchester. On one level, it's pretty simple. The police officer was insulted by a costume deliberately meant to mock people like himself. He was supposed to be the one with power and authority, yet here he was, the butt of laughter. Obviously irony-blind, he fumbled around for a way of exercising his power, something he could charge the offender with, and unfortunately chose "impersonating a police officer," only ratcheting up the amusement.

But the underlying point is this: people don't like to be impersonated, whether in mockery or in superficial play. It is rarely a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, but an affront instead, witting or unwitting, to whom and to what they are, objectifying them, and too often trading in "funny" stereotypes that make things worse.

Because the cop was a (white, male) person with delegated state power and the privilege that accompanies it, we can laugh easily -- at least, I did -- if only because of how that power was so ineptly exercised, almost satirically. Such laughter is subversive. Those without such cultural capital, however, have a much harder time of it; their imitators are the ones with both privilege and power, and the imitative act is itself an exercise of both. Catalogue ethnic, racial and gendered Halloween costumes under microaggressions, then, by all means. But, for the reasons indicated, we need to cut the kids a little slack, and reserve our serious discussions for the adults.

[Full disclosure: I own and wear a Basque boina and the larger txapeldun, and a comfortable Borsalino rabbit-fur fedora. No apologies. —JB]

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.