In the year 2010, in the United States, it’s acceptable to make fun of some groups of people. To find out which groups, you only need to turn on a children’s TV station, such as Nickelodeon, or wait until Halloween and see how people dress up. In fact, you, dear reader, may occasionally be promoting some cultural stereotypes without the slightest awareness that you are hurting anyone. I certainly don’t blame you, since some of the most wonderfully open minded people I know engage in this behavior. This post is an opportunity for you to contemplate cultural stereotypes that might at first seem like innocent fun, without being confronted directly. What you take from it is up to you, of course, but I hope that you realize that my feelings are genuine; these things bother me and they may upset other people who generally remain silent about them in public.
It’s pretty common for non-Mexican men to put on big sombreros and fake mustaches, and perhaps wear a shawl, called a sarape. There may not seem to be any harm in this to most people, but to me it’s akin to White people wearing black face makeup.
The Romani people are not generally seen as real people by non-Romani Americans. Thus, people are unaware that saying that someone “gypped” them, meaning cheated them, is a hurtful thing to say. If you are Jewish, and you have heard somebody saying that they were “Jewed” down, you know how this feels. Likewise, images of witch-like and mystical Gypsy fortunetelling women are crude stereotypes that reduce a real people to fairy tale status.
Poor rural White people are a favorite comical target of children’s programs. We see child entertainers dressed up with floppy hats, fake missing teeth, perhaps chewing on straw, wearing clothes with patches, and speaking with an exaggerated country accent. Once again, this seems funny to people who’s experiences don’t include any exposure to actual poor, rural White people.
Non-Native culture has gone from despising to romanticizing Native Americans (once they were no longer deemed a threat to Western expansion and mineral extraction). For some time now in much of American society, children have been raised to believe that Indians are mythological, or that they only lived in the past. Thus, it seems perfectly natural for costume shops to sell Indian costumes. But having other people dress up as caricatures of your culture doesn’t necessarily feel good. This is why, when I went looking for a costume with my stepson, who is Native American, he grabbed the Indian costume and hid it behind some other costumes. This is also why he was upset by a children’s production of the beloved classic Peter Pan, which includes an extended, racist Indian number, unchanged since its ignorant inception in 1954.
Of course, all sorts of other stereotypes permeate our culture. But the above examples are some of the last hold-outs of groups commonly thought to be OK to make fun of. My hope is that next time you are about to tell someone that you were gypped, you might consider saying “ripped off.” After a short while, it will flow naturally that way. And, when friends suggest going to a costume party as “Mexicans,” “Hillbillies,” or “Indians,” you might suggest a group a bit further from reality – perhaps the blue people of Pandora.
Click this flower for a look at how we can accidentally pass on stereotypes to children:
Or, click this angiosperm’s reproductive structure for something completely different – a marriage tip & a transgender airline: