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Cultural appropriation is just fine...unless you're appropriating a cop

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Having weathered the cloud of brightly-hued little sugar-locusts on Saturday, and sent them away satisfied, I chanced upon this video, which is not, I swear, something from Monty Python, but the real thing.

The man on the right, a protester unhappy with the way the Manchester police had been dealing with anti-fracking protests, has been doing stand-up street comedy. In this real-life skit, he wore a plastic bobby's hat and a pig mask -- and was arrested on "suspicion of impersonating a police officer." Way to go, Officer Plod. A fair cop.

(The tipsy world was righted shortly afterwards, but I rather wish the matter had gone to court.)

This real-life bit of Theatre of the Absurd made me reflect on costumes, and their various and sundry social uses. There has been a lot in the news recently about costumes deemed "inappropriate" for Halloween -- blackface, redface, sexy nurses and even sexy PhDs, and on and on.

Yet Halloween costumes are "let's pretend." The phrase is "dressed up as," and I've seen marvellous pretence, both first-hand and on the Internet. But I can understand the grown-up political sensitivities -- the objectifying nature of "pretending to be" Black, or Aboriginal, or imitating (non-satirically) a member of the Israel Defence Forces. There's a whole host of costumes to which we might take exception today, including the aforementioned gender stereotypes. One simply has to let one's darker imagination roam: someone will sell a costume for it.

And yet, from a kid's perspective, it's all innocent. Children are taking part in a time-honoured door-to-door ritual, exploring their imaginations (with parental assistance), acting out something they are not. I find myself wondering how we could ever bridge the divide between groups of people without exercising that same sort of imagination. Listening and observing are essential in that enterprise, but knowledge by itself is not enough -- we need to put ourselves, however imperfectly, in the Other's place. Without that informed imaginative leap of empathy, the Other remains objectified. Yet in an era of identity politics, one attempts to do so at one's peril. "Walk a mile in my moccasins," goes the adage -- but don't try it today.

The nub of the issue is that costumes can also be what people are. So-called national dress, and ceremonial regalia, are costume. By donning these, people join their community: they become what they are signifiying, and this is by no means just a matter of wearing something or other (see, for example: niqab). When others merely play with it, it can cause resentment -- although, well, please. At its worst, appropriating this dress from oppressed people is an expression of white privilege -- stealing the appearance without paying the historical (and current) dues, an unwelcome, ironic misappropriation. (I don't hold with the "cultural appropriation" notion, by the way -- all culture is appropriation.) But sometimes, especially with children, it's a step into the unknown, into the wonder of being someone else. How do we encourage that imaginative capacity, while being mindful of race, class and gender dynamics?

As for donning a white hood or the uniform of this oppressor or that, though, nuh-uh. That's parental neglect at the very least. Intolerable.

I confess that I don't know how to draw all of this to a neat, tied-with-a-bow conclusion. So let me close where I began -- with the bizarre event in Manchester. On one level, it's pretty simple. The police officer was insulted by a costume deliberately meant to mock people like himself. He was supposed to be the one with power and authority, yet here he was, the butt of laughter. Obviously irony-blind, he fumbled around for a way of exercising his power, something he could charge the offender with, and unfortunately chose "impersonating a police officer," only ratcheting up the amusement.

But the underlying point is this: people don't like to be impersonated, whether in mockery or in superficial play. It is rarely a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, but an affront instead, witting or unwitting, to whom and to what they are, objectifying them, and too often trading in "funny" stereotypes that make things worse.

Because the cop was a (white, male) person with delegated state power and the privilege that accompanies it, we can laugh easily -- at least, I did -- if only because of how that power was so ineptly exercised, almost satirically. Such laughter is subversive. Those without such cultural capital, however, have a much harder time of it; their imitators are the ones with both privilege and power, and the imitative act is itself an exercise of both. Catalogue ethnic, racial and gendered Halloween costumes under microaggressions, then, by all means. But, for the reasons indicated, we need to cut the kids a little slack, and reserve our serious discussions for the adults.

[Full disclosure: I own and wear a Basque boina and the larger txapeldun, and a comfortable Borsalino rabbit-fur fedora. No apologies. —JB]

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