“Manilyn, maybe you can help me out.”
I turn to my cousin eagerly, thrilled that she’s coming to me for an answer to whatever question she’s about to pose. I don’t get to see my family often, and I sometimes worry they still see me as a super awkward pre-pubescent tween, so I’m excited at this opportunity to provide my own insight on whatever she needs help with.
But my spirits fall as she proceeds to describe her predicament: For her daughter’s first birthday, they’re planning a “tribal-themed” party, and she’s looking for more ideas.
I begin to fidget, growing more and more uncomfortable as she describes the party favors and games and decorations–I catch words and phrases like “feathers” and “bundles of sticks” and “dances”, but I can’t hear much else over the red flags popping up in my head. I frantically calculate my response while she talks. “I don’t know what else I should do for the party,” she finishes, looking to me for suggestions.
I say slowly, “I… don’t think I’m the person to help you with this.”
She makes a disappointed noise. “But you’re so creative!” she says, crestfallen, and I feel like I’ve been whacked in the stomach with a baseball bat.
“Not when it comes to appropriating Native American culture,” I say almost gingerly, and I brace myself for the inevitable discomfort usually produced by my passion for social issues in situations like this where I’m not around people who share that passion. I’m desperately hoping I sound regretful and not critical. I add hurriedly, “I’msorryit’sjustthateversinceIstartedlearningaboutthisstuffIcan’tunseeit,” but I worry the damage has already been done. I can’t read her facial expression. In my head, I faintly hear echoes of online comment sections: Liberal bullsh*t! Social justice warrior! PC police! I try to block it out and focus instead on reaffirming myself with every source on cultural appropriation I can think of.
And I do feel regret. I feel like I’m raining on her parade. Quite literally, I feel like a party pooper. It’s not like she’s planning this party with the sole intention to perpetuate the problematic romanticization of Native American culture after it’s gotten the short end of the stick in this continent for over half a millennia, after all. I don’t think poorly enough of anyone to think that would ever be anyone’s conscious intent. I know that cultural appropriation is a nuanced topic. I know that the things I learn in my sociology classes are not common knowledge. But I can’t sacrifice those things I’ve learned for other people’s comfort now that I’ve learned them. For one thing, I don’t know how to. I don’t know how to un-see these things. And for another, even if I could, I don’t think I would ever want to. Not when I’m trying to be an effective ally to all marginalized communities. (And I know there are times I might misspeak. I don’t claim that I spoke on this situation perfectly at all. To any of my peers who are better versed in these issues or better versed in Native American culture, please correct me if I was wrong.)
I don’t know what effect my words had. I don’t even know what intent I was trying to achieve by saying them in the first place (other than to stick up for what I believe in). I didn’t say them with the expectation that she would just drop everything and say, “Oh my gosh, you’re so right, let me start everything all over again and plan an entirely different party.” (Like I said, I know this stuff is nuanced and that it’s not common knowledge.) I certainly didn’t say them with the intent to criticize her. Nor am I writing this now with any intent other than to process a situation which, however brief, challenged my integrity as a sociology student and advocate.
This situation made me realize I literally might not be the fun one to be around at parties. It’s both hilarious and sad. But I’d rather regret being a party pooper than regret not saying anything at all.
Featured image from here