Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

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