A friend of Brother-Bug recently had a birthday party. The friend loves Aikido and Asian food; Japanese culture fascinates him. So he chose an Asian theme for his party, dress-up encouraged.
Papa-Bug's concerns about cultural appropriation started to make themselves known. The Mama had tried to explain cultural appropriation to her eight-year old, but he didn't really get it. And something wasn't sitting right for me, but it wasn't the idea of Asian costumes on Caucasian children.
Here's the thing. Kids play. It's their job. It's how they learn. It's how they take information they encounter and make sense of it. It's how they process their feelings, fascinations, and experiences. This play is usually imaginative in nature; involving role play, story creation and/or re-telling, and dress up. This is really important work that they do to understand the world around them. I did it. You probably did it too.
We “enlightened” parents carefully and thoughtfully expose our children to other cultures. We enroll them in Aikido. They learn Spanish. We attend local cultural festivals. We eat different foods and read world folk tales. We want our children to grow up knowing that there are other ideas and ways and faces out there. This is called cultural literacy. It's one reason Brother-Bug has his pen pal in Uganda.
If kids are going to be introduced to other cultures and new cultural information…well, they're going to play with it. They will work that story, experience, or interaction into their games. It might involve dress up. It might involve mimicry actions which we (adults with years of context) might see as “cultural appropriation”.
But never fear. Our kids aren't doing anything wrong or disrespectful. They are doing what kids all over the world have always done. Playing. Making sense of their world and the puzzle pieces in it. This is good. This means they are paying attention to all our efforts to show them other peoples and that they care about understanding those different cultures. If they didn't care, if they weren't interested, they wouldn't play.
What can parents do here though? We want the play to be genuine, but we also don't want to end up with hurt feelings from our friends in other cultures,and we certainly don't want our children to learn that actions which trivialize other cultures are okay. We have to do what we are doing anyway – engage in enthusiastic exploration with our kids.
Out to Chinese food? An excellent time to figure out what is eaten regularly in China. Is the food we eat at our local restaurant similar? When would a Chinese family eat Sweet & Sour Pork? Wanting to dress up in cultural costumes? A time to find out when these costumes are usually worn. Find someone from that culture to learn about the costume and make sure it is worn correctly.
I believe when we try to explain the vast and unwieldy concepts of cultural appropriation to our young children, we run a real risk of teaching them something else. A young child – someone for whom imaginative play is still a daily activity – doesn't have the context to understand what we valiantly try to explain. I fear that children will possibly interpret the attempted explanation as “exploring other cultures is fraught with peril, stressful to your parents, and something you might seriously mess up.” I suspect that Brother-Bug (who hates to do things if he might mess up) might hear that kind of message as “Don't Do It” and send him away from his healthy, playful exploration of different people, scared of messing up learning about people. And that's scary to me.
There is plenty of time in my kids' lives to explain and grapple with what people their color have done to people of other colors. We will keep talking about why we, as grown ups, don't like the Indians in Peter Pan or the many depictions of non-white people in Tin-Tin. I'm not dropping the efforts we make to talk about race and awareness with my kids. These things are real and I want to lay the foundation now for deeper understanding in the future.
But I'm going to fight against the idea that a child dressing up in Chinese pajamas is doing anything other than having fun and trying to see what it might feel like in a Chinese child's clothes. I'm going to see these as Yes! Moments; a chance to explore and learn and bring people different from us into our circle and awareness.
I'm going to fight rascism and cultural appropriation in my family by continuing to encourage my children's knowledge of other peoples. And that might mean going to a Native American friend to ask about the appropriate time to wear a feather in our hair, or asking our Japanese step-grandpa what coming of age traditions we can borrow for a birthday party. Because I believe it is by knowing other people, by seeing their lives and learning their ways, understanding where we are different and where we are the same, that my children can grow up willing to be friends and allies to people of other cultures when needed.