OYM Day 52: White Face
There’s a lot going on in this picture. Too much, really. I wish I could say my unamused facial expression is due to my distaste for culture appropriation, but I know it’s that the white paint I used for my geisha makeup was so thick that it dried my face into a permanent scowl. Or maybe I was mad that my gloves didn’t match my muumuu. I should have opted for a less complicated and less offensive costume… you know, like my friends, the child brides.
I’m not sure how old I am in this picture, but I must’ve been in middle school. I didn’t know what cultural appropriation was at that age and it certainly wasn’t being taught in school. The most I knew about geishas came from cartoons on TV and a few fictional books. I had no idea that my attempt to make a creative costume could be seen as offensive or insensitive.
I’m glad that I’m now in a place to know better. I’m sure many people still find similar costumes to be okay and just kids having fun. And sometimes, maybe that’s all it is. But I’m of the mind that we should respect each other’s heritage, not make a mockery of it.
I can remember my first racist joke. I learned it from a kid at vacation bible school. It was about a zebra wondering if he was born white with black stripes or black with white stripes. The zebra asks God and God says “you are what you are”. When the zebra tells his friends what God said, the friends confirm he was born white with black stripes, because if he was born black with white stripes, God would have said “you is what you is”. I would tell this joke to friends and even my family at holiday cookouts. That joke was met with uproarious laughter. I must have been in first grade. I didn’t really understand the joke, but it was easy to tell and I loved the way people laughed…as if I were a real comedian. I’m not sure if they were laughing at the joke or at the fact that such a young kid was being racist. Either way, it makes me sick to think about it now.
In college I took a culture in media class. It was one of those required classes and worth a ton of credit hours. I dreaded it as I had to take it over the summer if I wanted to graduate on a condensed timeline. This meant waking up at 7am three days a week on summer break. It turned out to be one of the most pivotal classes of my academic career. I learned about how the media portrays people of different backgrounds and how much of an effect it has on our society. My professor had us watch old black and white variety shows, showing white men in black face acting like monkeys. Of commercials where black people looked comical and barbaric. The girl that sat next to me ran out of the room, crying. She was African American. I asked our professor to please turn it off. He did. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, a classmate raised his hand and started talking about how people are too sensitive and it’s an individuals responsibility to do what they will with jokes and what they see in the media. He was white, if you couldn’t guess.
What I’m trying to get at, is we can change. We can all change our minds, our opinions, and our behaviors. There will always be insensitive jokes and the media will likely never get it right. But I don’t have to be a part or take part in anything that would make someone feel less than. I guess I just refuse to double down on my own beliefs in an effort to block out someone else’s.
When you’re young, you do what you’re taught. When you’re older, you either keep doing what you were taught or let the world teach you. You can either see things forever from the window of the home in which you were raised, or you can just leave a light on and find your way back when you need to make sense of everything you’ve learned from the big, bad world.
You will appreciate home the more you leave it. You’ll be less uncomfortable apologizing the more you do it, and trust me, we all owe some unsaid apologies.
We can all unlearn and learn again. You don’t have to be what you were taught to be, or not taught to be. I’m just as good and bad as the next person I see. And so are you.
I’m not mad at myself for doing a horrible job at being a geisha for Halloween and I doubt anyone else would be too upset, either. But it does show me how much I’ve learned and changed with age, travel, and exposure to people that never looked out my window. And for that, I’m forever thankful.