Cultural appropriation has always been a touchy subject, but the topic has become especially heated in recent years thanks to so many media outlets setting bad examples (ahem, Vogue). That’s why when one Utah mom shared her daughter’s Japanese-themed birthday party FIVE years ago, it resurfaced on Tumblr and caused an uproar on the internet.
One user has since called the mom “racist” and has criticized her for setting a bad example for her daughter.
“Teach children this is not ok,” user ‘ginzers’ wrote.
Mom Heidi shared photos of her daughter’s birthday bash on her blog “The Gala Gals” in November 2012. Since then it has resurfaced on Tumblr a number of times.
The pictures reveal that the party not only included Japanese-themed décor, such as a cherry blossom centerpiece, traditional tea cups, and chopsticks, but also traditional Japanese garments. Heidi’s daughter and her friends are also seen wearing kimonos and geisha makeup.
This rubbed Tumblr user ‘ginzers’ the wrong way because the little girl and her friends are clearly white and borrowing elements from Japanese culture.
When another Tumblr user stepped in to say they saw nothing wrong with the photo of Heidi’s daughter in Japanese garb, ‘ginzers’ immediately hit back: “The makeup is clearly reflective of traditional geisha makeup which is yellowface and therefore racist. Furthermore, the girl is wearing a kimono, a garment that has for ages carried cultural significance. Assuming that she is white how can you think this is ok? And cultural appropriation isn’t a thing? What rock do you live under? I suggest you educate yourself on the differences between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.”
The makeup is clearly reflective of traditional geisha makeup which is yellowface and therefore racist.
“I am Japanese, in Japan at this very moment. The only people who think culture shouldn’t be shared are racists like you,” user ‘cheshireinthemiddle’ wrote.
“A vast majority of Japanese people actually enjoy other people making an effort to spread and enjoy japanese culture, and encourage it. Many make businesses in deliberately taking pictures of people in kimono. A common omiage (gift) for foreigners from japanese people is traditional japanese things such as kimonos, tea seats, shisa dog statues, ect (sic).”
The user then noted that Japan has been heavily influenced by other cultures in the past, such as China, Korea and Europe. Thus, “if japan stuck to itself, there would be no tempura, japanese tea, tea ceremonies, kabuki, japanese bread, japanese curry, j-pop, anime, cars, or modern fishing techniques,” they said.
“The picture is not ‘yellow face’ they are not making fun of asians. In fact, it looks like they put extra care and research into their work,” the user concluded. “The only reason that you have a problem with this is because that little girl is white and you know that it is acceptable on tumblr to crap all over white people. The only racist here is you.”
Where do you draw the line for who is ‘allowed’ to learn about Japan?
While the user makes some fair points, it’s important to note that just because they are Japanese, doesn’t mean they speak for their entire culture. And just because someone from the culture in question finds a behaviour acceptable, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily so. Complex factors including internalized racism, notions about class and economics, and societal conditioning can all come into play.
User ‘ginzers’ has not responded to the post since. However, another Japanese user on Tumblr came forward to defend the mom and emphasize that the party is cultural appreciation.
“This party is an attempt at experiencing and appreciating another culture,” user ‘littleblackchat’ wrote. “The mom who put this together is not an expert on Japan, but she did her best. She got a lot of things right: there are few things Japan loves more than tea, Pocky, and sakura.”
The user then brought up an important point when it comes to cultural appropriation: “Where do you draw the line for who is ‘allowed’ to learn about Japan? If the girl were of Japanese descent, would that make it OK? If one of the girl’s parents were from Japan, then would it be OK?
“Are you only allowed to make pizza if you live in Italy? If you’re an Italian immigrant? How do we decide these things?”
Comparing the reactions to the little girl in yellowface versus the reactions to Vogue featuring a white model in yellowface earlier this year proves how complex cultural appropriation can be.
While yellowface is never OK, the difference is that the girl appeared to be learning about Japanese culture rather than trying to profit from it.
While yellowface is never OK, the difference is that the girl appeared to be learning about Japanese culture rather than trying to profit from it or use it as an “exotic” accessory.
While Vogue’s shoot was done in Japan, the mag chose white model Karlie Kloss rather than a Japanese model to celebrate Japanese culture. For Vogue, a white model wearing Japanese garb is “cool,” therefore implying that an Asian model isn’t.
“What we slowly absorb from all this then is that the beauty of Asian culture, in this case Japanese culture, is only worth elevating when it’s portrayed – and therefore filtered – through whiteness,” notes “The Social” host Elaine Lui.
What we slowly absorb from all this then is that the beauty of Asian culture, in this case Japanese culture, is only worth elevating when it’s portrayed – and therefore filtered – through whiteness.
Vogue also didn’t use the shoot to shed light on Japanese customs or traditions, but instead simply borrowed elements they liked from the culture to create an appealing photo shoot. As a result, many people were appalled that the mag put forward a diversity issue, but didn’t practice what they preached.
The truth is that cultural appropriation will always spark debate. As a result, parents have often turned to social media to seek out advice on whether or not their child’s themed birthday party or Halloween costume is offensive.
Just last month, for instance, one mom asked in a closed Facebook group whether or not throwing a “Moana” birthday party for her son is appropriate, as she and her family are “very white, and very blonde.”
“Cultural celebration is not cultural appropriation,” one commented.
While some disagreed, another user, who identified herself as a woman of colour, revealed she thought it was OK to have the themed birthday, but “just don’t do brown face.”
“I’ve seen a lot of little white girls dressed like Frida Khalo during Halloween,” she said. “It doesn’t offend me at all, I just hope they also get a lesson on who she was and not just a unibrow and pretty flowers.”
You have to be mindful of the presentation and usage of the cultural element you borrow.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion about what is culturally offensive, it’s important to remember the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. According to fashion and culture expert Meera Solanki Estrada, the difference has to do with respect.
Since cultural appropriation is defined as “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon,” Estrada said, “You have to be mindful of the presentation and usage of the cultural element you borrow.”
In a HuffPost blog, she explained: “If you have an appreciation for a culture then it actually makes it much more difficult to appropriate it, because you are more likely able to recognize whether your actions will be taken as disrespectful or embraced by the people of that culture.”
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Author: Isabelle Khoo