How can I explain to white “friends” that dressing up as caricatures of people from Mexico is hurtful?

Q: I have family members/friends who feels differently from me about an issue.  This week for Cinco de Mayo, the Anaheim Angels (baseball team) had a promotion for their game which was to hand out sombreros and giant fake black mustaches to their fans.  I found this really upsetting.  Most of my friends/POC agreed, but some were utterly offended that I would call them out on this.  How can I explain to white “friends” that dressing up as caricatures of people from Mexico is hurtful?  I need help translating this.  Ideas? This is a great question. As white people in the US many of us are raised to to think that freedom means the option to wear and say whatever we want to.  Just because we have the “freedom” to do so doesn’t mean that we should. Your example of sombreros and mustaches is a great example of cultural appropriation. A description/definition of cultural appropriation that I often use comes from Nadra Kareem Nittle from about.com

The United States has long been known as a melting pot and, more recently, as a salad bowl. Because people from hundreds of different ethnic backgrounds make up the nation’s population, it’s not surprising that at times cultural groups rub off on each other. Americans who grow up in diverse communities may pick up the dialect, customs and religious traditions of the cultural groups that surround them.

Cultural appropriation is an entirely different matter. It has little to do with one’s exposure to and familiarity with different cultures. Instead, cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.

Costumes that reduce cultures to humorous and simplified stereotypes are hurtful to the less privileged group. Additionally, Lauren Duca adds to our above definition by saying, “Cultural appropriation refers to picking and choosing elements of a culture by a member of another culture without permission. This includes traditional knowledge, religious symbols, artifacts or any other unauthorized use of cultural practice or ideation.” I think it is important to think of all of the ways we might appropriate cultures that are not our own. Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota) talks about this in relation to Native American appropriation:

“There isn’t just one Native American culture. There are hundreds. And there are millions of Native people. And we’re being ignored. We’re being told that we don’t have rights over how we are represented in mainstream America. We are being told that we should ‘get over it’ – but the people who are saying this don’t even know what the issues are. When people know of us only as a ‘costume,’ or something you dress up as for Halloween or for a music video, then you stop thinking of us as people, and this is incredibly dangerous because everyday we fight for the basic human right to live our own lives without outsiders determining our fate or defining our identities.”

In your example, many white people in the US still think of people of Mexican descent in stereotypes. The sombrero and mustache costume reinforces false ideas of Mexican culture and reduces a very complex culture, with many different expressions, to a costume. Gabriela Calzada, explained to Mosaic in 2012, “There are many stereotypes [of Mexicans], many people here think that all Mexicans are short, dark-skinned and work in the kitchen or as janitors.” You can see how these stereotypes are connected with the idea that Mexicans wear sombreros and big mustaches. The situation gets even more complicated because you also are describing 2 other issues.

1) An institution that holds a lot of cultural power, the Anaheim Angels, handed these costumes out. This is problematic because it is giving people not just the encouragement, but the cultural sanction to wear these costumes. We are socialized to believe certain things about ourselves and others (I love using Bobby Haro’s Cycle of Socialization to explain this process). When cultural institutions, like a baseball team, say that something is ok people are less likely to challenge it.

2)  Cinco de Mayo.

Latin Times explains that, “Cinco de Mayo, is the Anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, the day is celebrated as a national holiday in Mexico. However in contrast to the popularity in the US, the Fifth of May in Mexico is much less extravagant affair. The holiday honors the military victory of the Mexican army when in 1862, French forces of Napoleon II were defeated. Despite the French eventually overrunning the Mexican army in future battles, the Battle of Puebla was significant in boosting morale and slowing the French army’s march toward Mexico City. The defeat of the much better equipped and larger French army, was an inspirational event for wartime Mexico.”

Raul A. Reyes asked a great question, “Just consider how it would strike us if we saw another country marking the Battle of Gettysburg with binge drinking and Uncle Sam hats.”

I hope all of this has helped give you some ways to talk to your friends and family not just about Cinco de Mayo, sombreros and big mustaches but all types of cultural appropriation.

For more info, check out Jezebel’s Primer on Cultural Appropriation its a pretty good resource.

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