Unpacking whiteness

Yesterday, when writing about the invitation to take care with Halloween costumes, to not amplify racism or oppression, I remembered a conversation I had with local mom, gymnastics coach, actor, leather-maker and costumier, Seija Halonen for a Mountain Life magazine story. Seija was sharing about the way dressing up can allow you to unleash all kinds of aspects of yourself, that don’t get much airplay in your every day life.

“Dressing up lets you be a little bit naughty, a little bit of a rebel. Putting on something you wouldn’t normally wear gives you permission to let that stifled bit of yourself out, especially if you’re wearing a mask.”

Sea to Sky people, she observes, know how to have a really good time, and follow their passions and do what they love. But they still often need the nudge of seeing someone else going big, to liberate their self-expression and release some of the stifled feelings that want out.

Seija, unleashing her inner Völva.

I was thinking about this in the context of “whiteness” and cultural appropriation.

Whiteness, you see, isn’t an ancestor. It’s not even really, scientifically, a thing.

It’s a cultural construct, and it’s one that was created, to set up an artificial opposition, and, I suspect, as a catch-all for all the deracinated, uprooted, displaced refugees of Roman colonizations, of colonialism, of wars and invasions and takeovers of land and country throughout Europe, who then travelled out to settle and colonize the rest of the world – as gold-seekers or tea-plantation owners or farmers or settlers… I think, it some ways, it signals a kind of blankness, an erasure. I mean, if you are white-bodied, how much do you know of your lineage? of your ancestors? your culture or language or cuisine? of who your people were back when they lived deeply enmeshed with the land?

I’ve had family members put a lot of effort into tracing the family tree, so I have some names and dates, no stories whatsoever, and a lot of dead ends. And because my knowledge of history is so meagre, I don’t know what provoked them to leave Scotland and Ireland and England and France in the mid 1800s, pack their lives into a trunk (if that), claim skills they might not have had in order to be selected as “free settlers”, and sail for two months non-stop to the other side of the world to never ever ever return. It’s kind of unimaginable a thing, this huge wave of emigration, of settlers, and I can only imagine that things were just so absolutely shitty for them where they were, that this utter uncertainty was a gamble worth taking.

What prayers did they say? What songs did they sing? What languages did they speak? Some apparently went to a church with a Scottish pastor who preached in Gaelic. What does that even sound like? What is my “culture?”

What was the unspoken loss in the hearts of these people? And is it possible that, seeing an indigenous culture, or another culture, that felt vibrant and distinctive and had a music and a way of dress and dances, made them want to erase that, in some way, so they wouldn’t feel the pain of their own cultural disconnect or erasure or absences or whiteness? And is it possible that the unexpressed longing emerged when Halloween or fancy-dress parties took place and it was, for one moment, permissible, to play with the shadow, and to imagine what it might be like to be part of an earth-connected, potent, awesome culture?

For the record, I think it is hurtful and harmful, now that we know better, to appropriate someone else’s culture, as a costume, particularly when that culture is actively denigrated and damaged in our day to day lives, by the systems we are part of.

And, I think it’s also worthwhile to acknowledge the longing and yearning that might be lurking beneath that instinct, to reach for that costume, or to smudge your workshop with safe, or all the other ways we are appropriating indigenous culture. And if we can name that longing, that absence, we have a starting place, for our investigations… for the history we might want to start to explore, so we can understand where we’re coming from, what we’re trailing and the shapes we take in this world.

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