Dealing with hybridity
All debates on social difference walk a precarious path between respect and offence. This is ever more the case when we deal with visual representations of difference and what they connote.
When we debate cultural appropriation there is often a great deal of animosity towards the superficial adoption of ethnic dress. The backlash is founded on the argument that an ethnic group and culture is being humiliated and trivialised. Authenticity, that most slippery and ambiguous social measure, is then called upon to pull rank.
However we all recognise that dress, while it may have very important and even sacred associations, is simply that, dress. Anyone can wear clothing. Whilst other cultural traits are much more difficult to adopt and foster. One cannot easily speak a language they do not know, practice customs, prepare traditional foods, recognise a sense of kinship, or simply change skin tone and physiognomy.
What we see in others is however very important. Especially when we see reflections of ourselves.
In one of the two photos above I highlight how we have a Chinese girl emulating the Disney Snow White performer at Hong Kong DIsneyland. The second photo is a still from the short, ‘A Girl Like Me’, which reconstructs the Clark’s doll tests from the late 1930s and early 40s. This doll test gave African American students the choice of two dolls to play with, one black and one white. The experiment found that consistently the children would choose to play with the white doll and that they also attributed positive characteristics towards the white doll and negative sentiments towards the black doll.
In the ‘Girl Like Me’ video the Clark’s doll test is replicated and found to have the same results.
So in terms of hybridity it doesn’t matter that a Chinese girl worships a blonde Goldilocks, but it does matter when a child has a negative view of their own ethnicity. Or in reference to my post yesterday about the Taiwanese plastic surgery advert.
Culture and ethnicity are not static. As social constructs they move and alter with the caprices of our age. Guarding the boundaries of culture over ethnic dress and costume is a job that will not disappear any time soon. However, we must also recognise that in essentialising difference in certain social roles and status we are also aiding the negative construction of racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes.
Ethnicity and culture are tied to places, histories, and politics. Dealing with our contemporary hybridity provides the opportunity compose new ethnicities and citizenship apropos for our societies. But, I caution, the identity and gender politics of one part of the world does not seamlessly translate to other places, or in fact other times.
Let’s have Asian princesses at Disneyland and bearded workers too, and Indian Barbies with adopted white babies, and lets do more than hope that the Clark’s doll test will yield different results in the years to come.