Are these school show costumes cultural appropriation?
November 17, 2017 11:51 PM   Subscribe

My kid's school regularly requests costumes for short shows throughout the year. Usually it's stuff like animals or a snowman. This year my kid's class have been assigned various "national costumes" for their winter term show, and I'm unsure of their appropriateness and am concerned they could be classed as cultural appropriation.

My kid's school does termly shows where the kids are asked to bring in specific costumes that match the songs they'll be singing.
One of the songs my kid's class will be singing this term refers to the countries Russia, Kenya, Jamaica, and Spain, and the kids have been asked to bring in associated (what I would describe as) "traditional folk costumes". Example costume pictures were included in the request - I've been able to get pictures of the example Russian and Jamaican costumes that were requested (link, apologies for terrible quality). Before I saw the photos I was very much grimace-emoji about what the costume would look like (and about how some clueless parents might dress their kid). Having seen the example costumes I can at least see they are "traditional" outfits (1, 2) and not some awful stereotype.

Does the "traditional" aspect of the costume make it OK? Should I say something to the school administration about this now, or wait until after the show to see if any kids are wearing something obviously problematic?

Other details:
- We are in the UK.
- Previously we were just asked to bring in e.g. "a mouse costume" or "a snowman costume". This year was the first time the request was accompanied by an example photo, making me wonder if the school is aware of the possible issues some of these costumes could generate.
- The school is slightly more diverse than average for the area, and is generally quite progressive, but is around 80% white (off the top of my head).
- I know that some white kids have been given Jamaican costumes, and some brown-skinned kids (of various ethnicities) have been given costumes related to a different song entirely (along the lines of generic costumes like doctor or angel or chef). No idea if the costume selections were given randomly or not.
- My kid's other parent has some Jamaican ancestry and is uncomfortable with the costume, but only in the same "unsure if this is OK or not" way as I am. Our kid (who therefore also has Jamaican ancestry due to the other parent) was assigned one of the generic costumes.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (5 answers total)
So, appropriation versus education.

They aren't doing this to steal, make fun of or exploit another culture but to be able to recognize, internalize and celebrate what they are learning.

Also, I'm betting that your school is diverse enough to have people play particular roles without getting into black face or other very bad things.

Learning history is not appropration even if it includes songs or a play. Dress up is a legitimate way for children to try different roles and learn.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:02 AM on November 18, 2017 [34 favorites]

The part of this that would make me uncomfortable is if they were only assigning the national costumes to white kids while giving generic costumes to the brown ones. That's a bit icky to me, like the white kids ate basically your default neutral and so can transform to someone from another culture by use of costume, whereas the brown kids remain brown no matter what they wear. For example, are they assigning any brown kids the Spanish or Russian costumes?
posted by peacheater at 12:13 AM on November 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Another vote for 'this is not cultural appropriation'.

I guess it *could* be cultural appropriation or even outright racist in the worst case — I could imagine a situation where the kids are being asked to act out negative national stereotypes — but kids simply dressing up in national dress from other cultures for educational purposes seems OK to me.

(I am your average white guy mind, so obviously the opinions of people from said cultures will trump mine.)
posted by pharm at 4:55 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

The teachers should be sure to explicitly teach that folk costumes are special outfits that look like what people wore in the past. The kids should not be allowed to assume that people in these countries don't wear T-shirts to go to the store. And there should be an English "folk costume" as well -- whatever that means to you, maybe something Shakespearean -- because you don't want the kids to assume everyone else has "a culture" and you guys are the default.
Other than that (and definitely following peacheater's advice) you're good.
posted by velveeta underground at 7:15 AM on November 18, 2017 [18 favorites]

During the recent (largely welcomed) series of articles about cultural appropriation in schools for Halloween celebrations in Ontario, this was and circulated for use in schools: Addressing Cultural Appropriation in the Classroom: Tools and Resources

The last article leads to this article in about cultural exchange vs. cultural appropriation in Everyday Feminism that makes the points that "Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return" and that "using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege." and "there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange" and encourages always "engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only."

I think your school's production might fall a little short of doing justice to a complicated and nuanced topic, though I am also not the person to ask as a white, privileged Westerner -- but I would always err on the side of caution. If we know better, we do better. I wonder about the song itself - what are your feelings about that?

I think you can sing songs and learn about other cultures without donning clothing that is meaningful to them. For our school's productions of a similar sort, the children waved flags and I actually made sure to talk to the teacher about respecting them - there was a dance move where some of the flags swept the floor, and it was not appropriate.

Schools are big ships to turn around - it's understandable to just put your reserve in writing and put the well-being of your child first if this is not something that can be undertaken easily, but you can do your best to educate at home.
posted by peagood at 10:59 AM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

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