Even when I was at college, there was a tremendous sensitivity to cultural appropriation that I didn’t understand. Growing up all over the world, I spent my time with ex-pats who routinely took bits of each other’s culture. We shared recipes. We took useful words from each other’s language. We adopted myths from religions we didn’t believe in simply because they were great stories. We developed a fondness for musical traditions that weren’t our own and developed a sympathy for peoples everywhere. When you grow up as a global nomad, you learn to culture shop. You learn to think like Bruce Lee.
People who don’t move between cultures domestically or internationally are often pretty precious about their own culture. I naïvely figured that America was a place where cultural borrowing happened freely and often. Wasn’t America a melting pot? Didn’t everyone just steal bits of each others’ cultures all the time? Well, some people do but, strangely, some of America’s most educated people are the most ignorant to the delightful joys of the kind of free and easy cultural appropriation that global nomads enjoy.
Last year, a student of Colombian descent at Bowdoin College sent out an invite to a Tequila party with the line “the theme is tequila, so do with that what you may. We’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that :).” Some people decided to wear mini sombreros which seems thematically appropriate. And yet, this caused an uproar. The school newspaper criticized a lack of “basic empathy.” The student government condemned the act as “cultural appropriation,” and one that “creates an environment where students of color, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, students feel unsafe.” And two members of the student government who attended the party were impeached. Catherine Rampell pointed out in an article in the Washington Post that a student of Costa Rican and Guatemalan heritage found the whole kerfuffle “mind-boggling” given that the dining hall was having Mexican night the next week and that there was an administration-sanctioned Cold War-themed party. Human history is full of tragedy. If we play dress up are we cheapening the tragedy? Well, that’s a good question for everyone to consider on Saint Patrick’s Day as they appropriate one of “my” cultures. My mother’s maiden name is McNeal is after all. And as you dress in shamrocks, butcher an Irish accent, eat corned beef hash and drink green beer, I will cheer you on. Have fun. Because on Saint Patrick’s Day everyone gets to be a little bit Irish.
And look at these two Irish fellas!
And is every pale face really of Irish descent?
And isn’t it grand? Isn’t it fun to dress like a leprechaun, wear a weird orange beard and dye things green? I think it is and I wouldn’t begrudge you that experience. Of course, it could be seen as making light of the Irish experience and the centuries of prejudice. The Irish have long been depicted as drunkards.
…and not unfairly. Drink has long been known as the “curse of the Irish” for a reason.
The Irish were dehumanized by that age-old strategy of comparing them to monkeys.
And it was routine to put on Help Wanted signs throughout the 19th and 20th Century that No Irish Need Apply.
And the Irish were driven to America in the wake of a potato famine that killed a million people.
Amazingly, on Saint Patrick’s Day not only does everyone get to be a little bit Irish, they get to extract the fun parts of being Irish from the tragedy and history of routine discrimination. This is what critical thinking is about. It’s about separating things out. It’s the same critical thinking that students at Bowdoin use when they appropriate Soviet era symbols without thinking about Stalin’s purges or the Gulag Archipelago. I used that same critical thinking about the Soviets in college too.
I also used that critical thinking when I, as a pigment-challenged man, turned a rather boring character in the Freshman Musical into a cartoonish South American dictator.
Dictators kill people. And yet, in 2000, the college campus I was on laughed at this. People whose families fled dictators like the one I was satirizing came up to me after the show and said my impression was hilariously true. Did my performance do anything to help the plight of people in South America? Nope. But it did make a student-written musical slightly more bearable. And making student-written musicals more tolerable is a mitzvah, friends.
Whoops! Mitzvah is a Jewish word for blessing. Can I use it?
Well, let’s see. I enjoy matzoh ball soup. I like brisket. I’m not Jewish but I do speak some Hebrew. I’m half-circumcised. Yes, I’m half-circumcised. I’m literally borderline on Jewishness. Am I enough in the tribe to be able to use the word mitzvah or not? And who gets to say what bits of culture people can use? Am I really Irish enough to be an arbiter of who gets to dress in green on Saint Patrick’s Day? And even if I wanted to stop everyone from being a little bit Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day, should I?
I can’t control other people’s emotional reactions. I can only control my own. So, if you want to be offended by me dressing up as a South American dictator or think that me wearing a hammer and sickle is me trivializing Stalin’s purges, then you go for it. I could view your drunken behavior on Saint Patrick’s Day as promoting an unflattering Irish stereotype. I could say you’re trivializing the suffering and historical persecution of the Irish people. I could dig my heels in and stomp my fight and call you a terrible person. I could say “If I can’t wear your culture’s hat, then you can’t wear mine.”
But I won’t do that. Why? Because theme parties aren’t really about the other culture. It’s about an excuse to be silly with you’re friends. On Saint Patrick’s Day, you’re not insulting the Irish. You’re having a bit of fun or, as the Irish say, “having the craic.”
Yes, the Irish say “having the craic” when they talk about having fun. Craic is pronounced crack…which can lead to some hilarious misunderstandings.
Is Ali G trivializing the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland?!? He is. And perhaps that’s as it should be. Because I think the use of violence in the Northern Irish conflict is something that should be ridiculed. It’s ridiculous to still be using violence in that conflict. We have the ability to talk out our differences. Why not do that? Why do a small number of people feel justified using violence to try and sway the minds of people? Whichever way the Northern Irish people go it should be the result of the Northern Irish people talking out the issue rather than by being coerced by terror into making a choice they don’t actually want. Like so many conflicts, the fight over Northern Ireland is driven by a small number of trolls who prevent reasonable people from talking out their differences. And it’s the same thing with the tiny number of people on college campuses and in the wider world screaming and shouting about cultural appropriation. If we’re missing something, tell us. We can talk it out. But don’t shout people down to get your own way.
I suspect most of us don’t really care that much about cultural appropriation. What we really care about is the recognition of historical injustices, being treated like a human being and having the right to be evaluated for employment based on nothing but how well we’ll do the job.
And so, if students of Latino and Mexican heritage don’t feel safe having gringos like me wear a sombrero, then I hope they’ll feel safe if we all dress in Irish green and cover ourselves in shamrocks. Either way, for me, the point of dressing up like we’re all Irish on Saint Paddy’s Day or like we’re all Mexican on Cinco de Mayo isn’t really about Irishness or Mexicanness. It’s about a day when we can all be part of the same tribe. And that kind of camaraderie is something we need when it comes time to fight the real injustices, poverty, discrimination and ignorance that still exist not just in America but in the world at large.
On March 17th, you could say everyone is a little bit Irish. But I think if you look at those smiling Irish eyes, I think you’ll find that Saint Patrick’s Day isn’t about a tribe called the Irish; it’s about a tribe called human. And that’s why I want you to appropriate “my” culture. I can think of no finer tribute to my McNeal ancestors than to make Irish culture the one that brings humanity together.
Author’s note: I haven’t looked closely enough into my own genetic heritage to know how Irish I am. Frankly, as Father Jack would say, who gives a feck.
Now, let’s have a drink together