Geishas, Wampanoag Indians and Rasta Hats With Dreadlocks. Why?

Would you let your teenaged daughter dance around dressed up like a geisha?

Or would you, as an adult, show up at a pilgrim feast dressed up in a generic Halloween “Indian” costume and let your “interpreter” speak stilted English to help portray a version of the first Thanksgiving feast?

Or would you be OK with your kid putting on a rasta hat complete with dreadlocks and say, “Give me all your money!” in an attempt to win a goofy group ice breaker?

These are the things Peter and I are discussing tonight as we have no stake in any of the amazing football games that were played earlier today. These are the things that keep me up at night because these are our realities as parents who are trying to raise three children in what some describe as a “post-racial” world.

Last week I saw a high school poms squad compete with all of their heart and dance skills dressed up like geishas. I snapped a photo, which I promptly posted on FB, and I sat there shaking my head. Their final pose was “hands meet at your heart in prayer” and bow. I expected a gong. They weren’t honoring the artistic skills and training of the geisha. They were demonstrating their modern dance team skills while perpetuating stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

But it wasn’t my daughter’s squad at the high school where my taxes go so what does it matter, right? Let it go, I tell myself. But I can’t. Or, I don’t think I should.

It made me think of our elementary school’s traditional pilgrim feast. I sat through two of those cringing at the construction paper feathered headbands the children had made for us parents, wishing I had the courage to say something appropriate after having experienced the first one, extending the benefit of the doubt and then having an even worse experience the second time. The man dressed up as the Wampanoag chief Massasoit wasn’t dressed as a Wampanoag chief. He was wearing a very nice Halloween costume. But I didn’t know what to say. I know it’s hard to believe I didn’t walk myself into the principal’s office two years ago, but it’s true. I don’t always know what or how to say things, especially when it’s clear this tradition was very, very old.

Let it go, I tell myself. Don’t ruin the tradition. But I’m having a tough time sitting here with myself.

And then Peter comes home after a fairly good weekend away at a retreat with our second child when he shares about an incident. The kids were asked to create commercials to promote their candidate (playing off this exciting election season), and one child put on a rasta hat with fake dreads and yelled out, “Give me all your money!” It was just enough to make Peter wince and talk to me about it at home…and show me the photo that he snapped.

Let it go, I tell myself. But maybe Peter and I shouldn’t.

Surely we aren’t the only ones who have seen things like this in our children’s schools and surrounding communities. What have you seen that made you uncomfortable, left you baffled, or made you angry?

What did you do or say?

Or, did you








  1. Melody January 23, 2012

    i complain/speak up on my blog and write about it (did so at this year at halloween).

    i listen to some of my friends, who go to a small conservative church where they are the only biracial couple, talk about the painful/awkward/terrible experiences they have had with ignorance and insensitivity. i hear in their tone how tired they are of constantly speaking up, though they are too polite to complain outright. when they concluded that this small country bible church was not the church for them to be raising their biracial children in, the pastor asked them to look at themselves as “cross cultural missionaries” to the church to help enlighten others. okay, start by not having a costume party celebrating the nations of the world (their annual missions awareness event) which they have said is bad, repeatedly, and it hasn’t changed.
    i listen to people of color (is this an okay label?) talk and try to be a little megaphone in my small world, for truth. pass it on. it is hard, because many/most people aren’t aware and think one should “lighten up” and go with the fun or the spirit of the thing.

    ultimately, i guess a person has to choose, in a spirit of love how and when and if they are going to speak up. i experience similar feelings regarding women in the church and similar challenges of knowing how often and when to speak up against injustice. the whole “post-racial” worldview, well that won’t change unless bridge people figure this one out. how to speak. when to speak. i don’t know much but i feel i have more awareness than many of my white friends, so i try to look at it as a responsibility and privilege to be a bridge person. but i’m white, so i get to choose. i have less to lose.

    • Kathy Khang January 23, 2012

      I cannot begin to imagine what that costume party looks like. Cringe.

      Thanks for being a voice that speaks up while understanding the privilege you have as a bridge person who can choose. I suppose I’m feeling a bit weary these days.

      The “people of color” is a tough one for me personally because as an Asian American I am not always considered a person of color. I have had a few conversations with Black and Latino friends and acquaintances who have varying opinions on who gets to be part of that umbrella label. I suppose that is why I tend to identity myself as Asian American.

      Any suggestions on how to approach the geisha costume? I’m pretty sure that school will be at the next few competitions, and it’s just plain creepy.


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