Shit We Don’t Need: Your Good Intentions & Racist African-Themed Parties
So you’re a “totally not racist” young Australian woman who just wanted to have an African-themed 21st birthday party, which somehow managed to ruffle feathers all over the internet and you can’t understand why!!!
It was simply “a celebration of another country’s culture,” as depicted in the Facebook photos titled, “This is Africa… My 21st” which show guests lookin’ all African’d up in blackface and warpaint, dashikis, turbans, leopard prints, Native American headdresses (why?), elephant and gorilla costumes, and of course a Ku Klux Klan outfit… Anyone should feel so honored.
I’ve read the response to the backlash that you posted on a Tumblr blog, which you then deleted along with all other social media accounts (probably for the best).
And though you could have easily Google’d what Africa actually is, some general history and why you don’t have the right to appropriate anything from it, I thought I’d give you a little nudge in the right direction.
Olivia Cole: “Okay don’t even know how to use tumblr but wanted to clarify this. It was my ‘African themed’ party and it was honestly made that theme because I have always wanted to go to Africa (to teach english) but haven’t made it there yet.
In no way was this party intended to hurt anyones feelings or upset anyone at all. In fact as you can tell from the photos I dressed up as cleopatra, whilst MAJORITY of my guests came as animals, that can be found in africa or wore traditional african clothes or even dressed up as famous people who come from africa. If anything this was to celebrate the amazing country and people.”
Please do not go to Africa to teach anyone anything because
AFRICA IS NOT A COUNTRY.
Africa is the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent, of which there are seven.
“There are 55 states that are internationally recognised and members of either the African Union or the UN or both. 53 of these belong to both the AU and UN lists. Morocco is not part of the AU but is a member of the UN. The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic is part of the AU.
In addition, while there are various other territories that claim independence, there is also one de facto state, as described under the normal definitions of what makes a country, which is Somaliland. It is not, however, a recognised state.”
The “Good Intent” Ship Has Sailed
Olivia Cole: “However, some guest did decide to paint themselves, although this was in no way my intention or encouraged in the slightest.”
“Racism is not in your intent. Your intent is immaterial in how racist your actions are. This isn’t about you BEING a racist. It’s about you DOING A THING that is racist. Your intent doesn’t change it. Your ignorance of its meaning doesn’t change it. It’s got nothing to do with you as a person and everything to do with the meaning of your action in the context of sociocultural history.”
– Moniquill (On Red Face & Cultural Appropriation)
Blackface is Racist Even in Australia
“Blackface is racist and demeaning. It is a tool used to strip the humanity from blacks. Easier to rape, terrorise and brutalise cartoon clowns than real live people.”
– Sam Watson, Aboriginal activist (via)
“There is a history of Blackface in Australia. It is a hurtful and degrading history that denied our right to self representation and helped to create the racial stereotypes that plague our nation today.”
– Jirra Lulla Harvey, Aboriginal journalist (via)
There’s No Privacy On the Internet
Olivia Cole: “I understand that this has offended some people and I have no idea how these photos have even been seen, they were simply put on facebook for my guests to see the photos of themselves.”
Nothing is private once it’s put online. You just learned a major lesson in that, didn’t you? And someone was obviously offended enough to share the photos outside of your network.
The Real Problem: Your Lack of Understanding
Olivia Cole: “I am 100% sure that parties would be held that would be ‘Australian themed’ or American themed or even countries of the world, and in that instance I don’t believe anyone would be offended. People wear oktoberfest cotumes to parties and no one cracks it that they are not German? So what I am saying is I do understand the people who have painted themselves have offended people, although none of them intended that…. but how can people be annoyed that the majority of the people at the party were celebrating another countries culture.”
Your failure to comprehend that Africa is not a country has caused you to also fail to recognise that the continent is multicultural and hosts multiple ethnic groups.
The offensiveness lies within the rampant cultural misappropriation displayed at your party, along with the mix-matching of what you and your friends wrongly think is African-ish and your inability to understand why someone would be offended by a long and continuing history of misrepresentations.
What is cultural misappropriation?
Cultural misappropriation is when a dominant group adopts specific cultural aspects from a minority group without understanding those aspects, applies preconceived notions about that culture which are usually inaccurate, and thus oversimplifies and disrespects the culture being borrowed from.
Since you and your guests didn’t bother to actually learn anything about the people you’re appropriating from, while adorned in “traditional African clothing,” the cultural importance of the patterns, colors, and textiles is completely lost upon you.
You prove this again with your attempt to validate your bullshit in a reference to “Oktoberfest costumes,” which are actually dresses called “dirndl” that have town-specific patterns.
Regarding them as just “costumes” negates the expression of cultural tradition, as well as the fact that the clothing is still worn in parts of Germany and Austria.
Despite what you think, the oversexualization and cheapening of this attire by non-Germans has indeed been brought up as a problem, and referring to the clothing as “costumes” is offensive to the people it belongs to, not drunk Oktoberfest tourists.
But you’d have to actually care that you’re being offensive…
There Are No “But I Have A Black Friend” Passes
Olivia Cole: “Also one of my friends who is Mauritian painted himself white, but that photos didn’t make it to this page along with the MAJORITY of people who were amazingly detailed costumes that no one could take offense to!! I am sure that not one person at my party felt upset that said guest painted himself white as it was not meant in that way at all.”
Your Mauritian friend does not help you at all. I have no idea what parading in Whiteface has to do with your African-theme, but his approval and cooperation with your insensitive soiree does not give it the green light.
It Doesn’t Matter That You Aren’t Racist
Olivia Cole: “Also, I have NEVER been asked to take these photos down, however if I had of course I would have done so, as I had no idea that anyone other than friends and guests could see these photos, and to be honest I am not a racist person at all so I didn’t think anyone could possibly take it that way.”
Again, the outrage is not about WHO you are, though it seems to be assumed by many that you are not very smart; this is about what you DID and what you CONDONED at YOUR party.
As a Buzzfeed commenter points out, “If a friend came to my party dressed in KKK robes or blacked up, they IMMEDIATELY wouldn’t be my friend anymore…”
Also, the Tumblr user that helped expose the photos notes, “the girl posted the pictures proudly and flatly refused to take them down when confronted by another individual about how they were racist apparently. Pictures were reported to facebook weeks ago and they still have not been taken down.”
You Hurt More Than You Help
Olivia Cole: “I intend to spend 2 months teaching english in cambodia in January, and cant wait to do the same in Africa. If you will still have me.”
The last thing needed in Asia or Africa is yet another oblivious do-gooder who refuses to take the time to retain basic geography of the region they intend to help; is too lazy to learn the differences between African countries and various cultures; let her friends run around her party in brown makeup and KKK attire; thinks dressing up as Cleopatra celebrates Africaness; and as an aspiring educator, defends her ignorance with no expressed intentions of learning from this experience.
Africa called and they said, “no thanks.”
Flaws In Your Theme
Olivia Cole: “To reiterate, I was cleopatra and did not encourage my guest to wear anything racist simply to come as something African Inspired, much like if you went to an australia day party (Which I am 100% sure people of all races and cultures do every year!!!)
“Again I am sorry for those I have offended and the photos have now been removed now that I have eventually been made aware people were upset. For those who know me at all you would know the last thing in the world I would want to do would be to offend people.”
As a Clutch Mag commenter suggests, you could have asked “guests to donate to Kiva, [which] provides funding to African entrepreneurs, or to bring their favorite African food” or celebrated in “numerous non-offensive ways.”
Someone with such great aspirations for helping Africa could have hired a local expert to teach their guests something specific from the continent… cooking, dancing or music lessons, oral traditions, etc.
Lastly, who the hell, outside of Australia, throws Australia Day parties? And who, outside of the U.S., throws America-themed parties (where the flag isn’t being burned)?
If these parties don’t acknowledge the land, children, and history stolen from the aboriginal peoples of the Americas and Oceania by Europeans — whose descendants continue to mock other indigenous peoples and issue insincere apologies, there’s a special place you can shove them — right along with with your unintentional racism.