When is it cultural appropriation and when is it just kids playing dress-up?

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Last week on Offbeat Families, we ran a sponsored post for a family photographer featuring the image shown above.

Within a day, we’d gotten two comments about it. The first very articulately raised the issue of cultural appropriation: “I know that other people probably disagree, but the first photo makes me sad. Adrienne says it better than I can.” The second comment (from a different reader) was less articulate, snarkily asking the photographer if she “has the kids do hipster blackface as well?”

Both comments were removed (as per our comment policy on sponsored posts), but we also swapped out the photo.

But the issue of cultural appropriation is huge and important, so I sent this follow-up message to the more articulate of the two commenters:

About your comment below on Offbeat Families: the photo you were concerned about has been removed from the post, but I wanted to follow up with you via email. A sponsored post isn’t the best place get into a whole discussion about race and cultural appropriation, but I’d love the opportunity to dive into this more.I’m totally 100% with you on how the hipster trends of cultural appropriation are problematic (it’s something we’ve talked a LOT about on Offbeat Bride), but I’m confused about how a photo of the children reflects this.

So, for starters, we don’t know anything about the cultural background of these children — they could be half or a quarter Native. By accusing them of appropriation, there are some serious assumptions being made about people of mixed race backgrounds looking a certain way. For that matter, they could have a non-blood relative or family friend who is Native American who gifted this headdress. We simply have no way of knowing.

That said, even assuming they ARE white and have no personal connections to Native culture, I’m confused at how children involved in imaginative play can be considered hipster-ish cultural appropriation. Children engage in fantasy play all the time, including cultural play like pretending to be everything from Eskimos to French bakers to Aboriginal hunters to Russian spies. By saying these children are somehow guilty of appropriating for fashion or appearance feels like it’s suggesting that children are only allowed to play-act their own personal experiences.

Shouldn’t we be encouraging children to learn and explore other cultural experiences through play? Where-as status-seeking adults may wear a head-dress out of some sort of ironic fashion statement, it feels like these kids are potentially playing dress up in the same way they would by wearing a sombrero they brought home from a family vacation to Mexico, or a pair of little leiderhosen from Germany. I totally understand the issues of genocide and colonialism — but imaginative play feels like the perfect time to talk to kids about these issues.

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Again — we’re definitely batting for the same team here, but I’m really struggling with the idea that we’re now accusing children of being culturally appropriative fashionista hipsters. Help me understand?

The reader responded articulately that it wasn’t a hipster fashion issue, but rather “Sacred objects aren’t playthings. ‘Playing Indian’ is problematic, in that it almost always reinforces stereotypes about what it means to be Native. I’m not native, and I’m certainly no expert, but I have been doing a lot more research and thinking about my own white privilege recently, so the photo really hit me the wrong way, especially as the lead item.”

This was a great response, and I guess where my perspectives differ from that of our reader is I feel like sacred objects CAN be play things — assuming the parent uses the play as an opportunity to have a conversation about the complexities of the issue. To me, the problem is not in the play — the problem is in parents who don’t use the play as an opportunity to have a discussion.

That said, she did have a great point — given the complexities of this issue, was this really the best photo to LEAD with? Probably not.

Those complexities lead Offbeat Family’s editor Stephanie and I both into HUGE discussions with our respective families about this topic. Then we opened up the discussion to our longtime contributor, Victoria Rodrigues, who’s written about Native American issues:

When I saw that post, I too had a gut reaction. The issue for me was NOT that a child playing “Indian” would be inherently problematic. Kids love to play iconic characters from other cultures which are usually simplified to the actionable elements: for my kids, wearing black and walking sneakily through the house is “being a ninja,” and doing kicks and cartwheels is “being Brazilian” a la capoeira. Like you said, that is a fantastic time for parents to step in and use their enthusiasm for a teaching moment.What raised my alarm bells was wondering how the image was made– was the headdress a favorite play item or a prop introduced for novelty? The picture doesn’t seem to evoke kids playing Indian, to me; it hit me as kids dressed as Natives for the novelty of the photograph. Of course, I do not know this family and it is totally possible that the kids wear those things every day and love them to death; it was just the way the image struck me as an outsider. Which brings me to the thing that does tend to bother me, which is such an image used for advertisement.

I get really squeamish with Native Novelty Advertising. At this point, the aim of the imagery has moved on from a child’s interpretative play to imagery created and selected by adults and marketed to other adults. I used to come across this often in the back pages of granola-mom magazines in the product ad pages. From images of native-looking people using the product to claims like, “Inspired by the traditions of the insert-indigenous-people-here,” I feel this kind of advertising was built on the foundation of romanticizing native peoples, which is totally a form of subverting those people. I don’t think these ads are all wrong or all distasteful; I just feel it is a ground which should be walked carefully and consciously on the creator and consumer ends.

This was SUPER interesting — I hadn’t factored in the added complexity of the image appearing in a sponsored post. To me, the image says “oh hey: you caught us playing!,” but I wasn’t thinking about it in the context of the photo being used to sell something — even if the product is just the photographic capturing of the play-time.

Well, I guess I had thought about the sponsored-post-ness of it from a comment moderation angle (“This paid post isn’t the place to get into a huge debate about this…”) but not from the angle of “This is an issue BECAUSE this is a sponsored post.” It wasn’t anything that either of the original commenters explicitly said, but it makes a lot of sense to me that of course the issues of cultural appropriation get stickier when there’s commerce involved.

Oh, and speaking of this being a sponsored post — what about that sponsor, anyway? The photographer in question was heartbroken and humbled by the experience. As she said:

I’d like to note that I wasn’t aware of the “hipster” fad with headdress. The photo that some readers objected to was not intended to offend anyone, and I apologize for that. This was just a game these brothers were playing. If I’d known about this whole hipster thing (I’ve just read all the blog links that were provided), I certainly would not have added fuel to that fire.

And no, I do not put kids in blackface. I like to photograph kids in their natural play, and what I love about that particular photo is the boys expressions. I consider what they were wearing to be secondary.

Again, I apologize if you were offended; that was definitely not my intent.

I don’t even know what the final moral of the story is here, but I really value that my work gives me the opportunity to have these discussions.

Updated to add this super relevant video. Well-worth your 15 minutes to watch:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU&w=560&h=315]

Comments on When is it cultural appropriation and when is it just kids playing dress-up?

  1. I have a ton of Native American roots and lemme tell you- my kids have tomahawks, drums, headdresses, even loin cloths! They are playthings, but they also teach children about sacred rituals, culture, and heritage. If I never allowed them to play with any of these items, they would be way less likely to have an interest in learning.

    My white children also play with black dolls and I don’t believe when they throw the dolls into the bottom of their toy box it says anything about their respect for diversity or culture. It just means they’re done playing.

    I think that sometimes the problem with white people thinking too much about white privilege is that they go from one extreme (ignorance) to a totally different extreme which leads them right back to….. ignorance!!

    • Chris, you bring up an interesting point: NONE of the people included in this discussion (the readers expressing their concerns, the editors dealing with the concerns, the photographer, etc) are Native American.

      In my experience, the most vocal complaints I get from readers about issues of cultural appropriation and diversity are from WHITE readers. This is awesome (yay self-awareness of privilege!) but also problematic (boo for people not understanding what the word “Tribe” means and deciding its “frankly racist.”).

      I think us white folks need to keep questioning our privilege, but I think we would also benefit from less arguing online with other white people, and more getting out into the world and mixing up and exploring with the cultures we’re working so hard to defend.

      • It seems like you’re hitting the nail on the head. Sometimes more arguing online can come across as trying to speak for people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. So awareness can sometimes breed a whole different form of foot-in-mouth!

      • Funny that you say that most complaints are from white readers. I used to think that playing “Cowboys and Indians” was going to be some awkward game I was going to have to discourage children from playing as it might reinforce negative stereotypes. Then I began to work at a school that is 100% Native (or FNMI as we refer to them in Canada), and watched a rousing recess game of Cowboys and Indians that the kids were playing hahaha!

        Sometimes there is a fine line between being culturally sensitive and being overly politically correct, and it can be difficult to tell the difference.

      • As someone who is both Native American AND white, you know what bothers me most about this whole thing?

        White Savior Complex.

        I get that you don’t want to be offensive. I understand. But that child is clearly just playing and that’s okay! I am thrilled to see how many people were so quick to protect the native culture, but our culture goes a little beyond mere clothing, thank you.

  2. I had a negative reaction to this image, as well, but I didn’t know how to articulately explain my feelings. I’m glad to see that the issue is being addressed.

    • Yep. This is why I always listen to reader concerns like this — if a couple people care enough to comment, then chances are very good that there are more lurking and feeling the same way.

  3. I love that you took the time to follow up on stuff like this and ask all the questions that need to be asked. This was a really well thought out piece with input from various viewpoints – some of which I hadn’t even considered. I really enjoyed reading and applaud you for posting this.

    • I agree. Ariel, I really appreciate the way you tackle these super difficult topics with a mix of respect and irreverence and reason. Also that you are not completely defensive. Reason #1 the offbeat sites are among my favorite sites, even when I’m not interested in the content of specific posts.

  4. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion. I just want to say thanks for addressing criticism so openly and honestly. Your awesomeness continues!

  5. Thank you for this- the photo did strike an uncomfortable note with me as well, but I did not comment because I didn’t know how to frame my unease. The issue of ‘native novelty’ is one that hits close to home (literally, here in Albuquerque where it is scrubbed of meaning and packaged neatly and sold to tourists), but I know that it would not be the intention of any of the Offbeat sites to promote appropriation of a culture for disrespectful means. I’m very glad (and relieved) to see the issue being brought up and discussed with compassion and integrity for both sides.

    • Hey, Jessicah; I am in Albuquerque, too. Perhaps we have passed each other in aisles of tourist fetishes at some point 😉

      My husband has family in Zia Pueblo. When we moved here, one of the first things I learned is that many members are not happy with the way their sacred sun symbol has come to be used. It was the first of many, many lessons in appropriation New Mexico has taught me.

  6. As a Native American reader of this website, I was disappointed by this photograph when I originally saw it. I absolutely read it as part of the “hipsters wearing headdresses fad.” I’m sorry if I offend the children/parents/photographer here, but this whole image looks like rich kids getting artsy photos taken. Nothing to me about this photo looks like kids playing dress up and being goofy. Also, no Native American that I know would let their child “play” with a sacred headdress. (My dad once let me hold his when I was thirty years old.)

    I’m glad to see you are addressing the issues that this photo has sparked; I guess I wish that you all would have noticed this was an issue before you published it though.

    • “I guess I wish that you all would have noticed this was an issue before you published it though.”

      Me too.

  7. I’m the photographer, and I can tell you that I have dozens of images of the boys (and their little brother) playing. Crawling around on the floor as a bear and a wolf, the boy wearing the headdress just strutting his bare chest; I love this image the most because right before this, I asked the boy wearing the headdress to look at me. That’s all. I didn’t pose them, I just let them play and called his name.

    They’re not rich kids, and I don’t see it as an artsy photo. I would just ask that before judging me, you take a look at my work as a whole and not zero in on one image that you think I’m showing because it’s a fad, or “in.” And for the record, I’m far from a hipster. I’m a 51 year old grandmother and I’ve raised a daughter.

    • I’m sorry if my comment came across as judging you, I meant to analyze what I saw as a Native American when presented with this picture. It is too typical of the whole headdress fad for me to do anything except shrug and try to focus on more pertinent issues in the Native community.

      But if you expect me to research all of your work in order to understand that what you do is not subscribing to cultural fads, then I guess I expect you to research what cultural appropriations you use in your work and what they might mean to peoples from those cultures. The appropriation of the headdresses in pop culture has been widely documented.

      • “I guess I expect you to research what cultural appropriations you use in your work.”

        I think there’s a disconnect here — this headdress wasn’t a prop, or something that was “used” by the photographer. It was something the children were playing with that the photographer captured. And I want to be clear here: I don’t think the photographer did anything wrong in capturing an authentic moment of children at play.

        The mistakes that were made were by myself and my editors — we should have better thought through the implications of using this particular image in a sponsored post. In other words, we were the ones who did the using, not the child (who was playing) or the photographer (who was capturing the play).

        Ultimately, I think there’s a lot for all of us to learn from this discussion, and I’m not sure accusations are helpful. Let’s try to keep the conversation constructive.

        • I think that Danica’s quote stands – while the photographer didn’t hand the headdress over to the kids and direct them to play with it, she did “use” the imagery by including the picture in her body of work.

          I think there’s a difference between some kids playing around at home, and a photographer documenting that play and then using the image outside of context in a sponsored post (ie one that will ideally bring her customers & money, unless I’m mistaken).

          I agree with Danica – photography and art stands on its own to me. I shouldn’t have to go research someone’s full body of work in order to have an option and reaction to one piece of it.

          • Totally agreed, but if your concern is with context — again, that was the failing of me and my editors, not the photographer. We selected the image.

          • Plus it is art. It is supposed to make a statement. Statements often do offend people, and they create discussion, just like what is happening here. I think it is a great thing that we can sit and discuss this without judgement.

  8. I took the photo at face value: it was a good shot. I didn’t look into it, because frankly I didn’t care. As a child my parents were honest about my Cherokee blood, and when I asked why I was so white, they told me because of the Irish in me. I have always been more interested in my Cherokee heritage than my Irish. It was something that hurt deep inside, because I knew that my neighbors ancestors potentially killed my ancestors.

    But I get more offended at how the Irish are portrayed as drunks, lunatics and red haired lepercauns (spelling please!). Or how anybody with red hair and only people with red hair are Irish. That bugs me a lot more than this picture did. And thats just me. Being honest.

  9. Doesn’t all children’s play romanticize something? Playing princess doesn’t take into account the oppression that women have faced throughout history. Playing house or “mommy and baby” doesn’t take into account the amount of work and responsibility that comes with adulthood. At what point do adults have a responsibility to step in and have a conversation about these subjects? I admit that I played pretend Native American as a child, mainly for the craft possibilities of trying to make arrowheads and teepees out of rocks and sticks in my backyard.

    Not trying to be snarky; I’m honestly curious (and not a parent, so haven’t had experience). Trying to understand more, and I really appreciate how OBE addresses these issues and encourages dialogue.

    • I love this:

      “At what point do adults have a responsibility to step in and have a conversation about these subjects?”

      To me, that’s one of the key questions about the idea of children’s play and what is and isn’t “okay.” There are so many ways you play when you’re young, so many songs you sing and games you make up, things that you don’t even think of as being remotely offensive because, if I’m remember my early childhood (5-8) correctly, I didn’t really have a clear idea about what “offensive” could even mean. That could have been a failing on the part of my parents or community, but it could have also been a result of the sweet, very fragile place a lot of kids go to when they play.

      I’m very defensive of a young child’s right to play and pretend, but also recognize that it’s on me, as a parent, to step in at some point and teach my son what is and isn’t a game. The problem is that that point isn’t clear, and there’s no real way to figure out where the line is — everyone has a different answer.

      I really don’t have a concrete response to what you said as much as I agree with it, and wanted to keep jamming off the idea. 🙂

  10. As a native American and incidentally, the husband of commenter Jessicah, I’m not entirely sure what to feel about the image. Jessicah showed it to me, and initially I had no problem with it. It’s nothing more than an image of children in play, whether staged or not.

    In the time it took me to pick up the laptop, I realized that is an image that I would give no more attention to than something you could liken to an advertisment for somewhere, say, Urban Outfitters or any other place similar. That’s when I realized, why do I ignore them? Why should I not be bothered by this? I think that our images of Natives is so ingrained in our society through media (mis)representations that many people just don’t see it anymore, myself included.

    I am proud to be who and what I am, and while growing up a city-dweller, I have made it a point to participate in traditional ceremonies. I don’t quite understand what makes my culture and all that broadly encompasses it okay to portray in whatever way deemed suitable. while other cultures are treated more carefully. It’s deeply troubling, but there is no easy answer or solution. What else is interesting is that the way it is portrayed can make all the difference (the pueblan natives of Mars on Futurama, for instance, is highly enjoyable and humorous to me).

    I am more troubled than offended about what are considered sacred objects of high importance being used for the purposes of advertising or irony. This is conflicting to me as an atheist as well. Every situation is personal, so there’s no specific way to address this as a society, I fear.

    What is more annoying than troubling, is the white guilt. It’s hard to see people trying to figure out how to not offend someone else (and be offended for me) when they don’t know how to do it and just end up bickering amongst themselves over which way to be more politically correct. What doesn’t bother me is when my white wife feels troubled or offended, as I have welcomed her into my worldview, my culture, she sees what my perspective is and we share a life together. That’s okay.

    So I guess this is a long rambling way to say that as a native, I honestly don’t know where to pinpoint m feelings or thoughts on the matter. Education is key, but how and where do you start?

    • And as an artsy type, nothing against the photographer. I think it’s actually a good shot. I think I’m just talking in a much broader sense now.

    • Adam, thanks for weighing in on the complexities — especially on white guilt. To answer your “Education is key, but how do you start?”

      Writing this post, I was like “Ug, what’s my point here? I don’t have a solution or a tidy resolution or a clear call to action.” But it feels like just having the discussion is important. Just opening up the door to say “Wow, this is messy and complicated and we’re all stumbling around trying to figure out how to be respectful and authentic and making mistakes and learning” felt like something important to do. Talking about race online is a nightmare (you should have seen me as I was clicking “Publish,” waiting for the shitstorm to descend…) but it feels important to try in the name of education.

      This is all to say, I don’t have any answers either, but I hope that conversations like this one can be a part of the unfolding…

      • Now I feel like I’m being a jerk about the white guilt thing. I need to distinguish- this is fine. This is constructive, this discussion happening here (at least for now). This is great that you were willing to endure what is most often a nightmare situation with an open mind and willingness to listen and learn. Thank you. I am not attacking you in any way

        • Oh, no worries there: I didn’t feel attacked. You weren’t being a jerk; you were being right! 🙂

  11. I am so glad this issue is being discussed. My husband recruits international students for a university and often brings home tiny outfits from the places he visits for our son. The outfits reflect the cultures that he is visiting. I love to share with our son the different styles of dress from around the world. I really identified with the comments about using play to educate about cultural diversity. I think it is important to educate in a respectful way, but also to be careful about being too careful.

  12. Thank you for such an interesting discussion!

    One thing that strikes me is how the concept of ownership functions in issues of appropriation. For instance, I’m a Celtic polytheist. The priests of my ancestors also wore feathers – seers undergoing trance-work would wear headdresses and cloaks of feathers (particularly feathers of swans and other waterfowl) as a symbol of connection to the three realms of land, sea and sky. This use of feathers as ceremonial wear is documented in several Irish mythological texts. And using feathers for sacred ceremonial purposes is certainly not isolated to either Irish or Native American culture. So if I were to wear a headdress of feathers – would I be appropriating Native American culture, or would I be following the customs of my own tradition? And if my own tradition also includes the use of feathered headdresses or cloaks, who gets to judge whether or not it’s appropriate for me to wear non-consecrated versions of those items in non-ceremonial contexts? Of the examples that Adrienne K shares in the post you linked to – some of the headdresses seem to be based pretty obviously on Native American stereotypes… but others seem to have hardly any resemblance at all, other than the fact that they include feathers. I’m not sure she’s right to assume that any feathered headdress is automatically an appropriation of Native American culture. Historically speaking, that’s just as much an inaccurate stereotype as the ones she rightly points out.

    I’m also not sure that we should draw the line between children and adults when it comes to the value and importance (socially, psychologically and spiritually) of “play.” Postmodern philosophy suggests that sacred play is an essential aspect of self- and community-identity formation and the navigation of porous cultural boundaries. Sacred or deep play can be especially important in a multifaith, multicultural society where meta-narratives are being actively explored, questioned and subverted. I’m just as uncomfortable saying that kids should be allowed to indulge in racist stereotypes of “cowboys and Indians” as part of their play without being challenged or corrected, as I am uncomfortable declaring that adults should not be allowed to “play” outside the bounds of their cultural heritage at all. In both cases, it seems like there’s some nuance missing, as well as a missed opportunity for respect and connection. I don’t know what hipsters are, exactly, or how this trend in headdresses is playing out among people calling themselves hipsters…. but I’m not sure it’s helpful to assume that certain behaviors or aesthetic choices are *always* expressions of cultural appropriation resulting from ignorance and insensitivity. Again, that seems to me like swinging too far back in the other direction.

    • That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out how to say. I don’t think this knee-jerk reaction to everything is healthy.

    • Love that you brought up the role of “play” in navigating personal and cultural identity. While the idea of “trying on” other cultures is troublesome, it’s also part of the human experience. While motivations can be questioned, I’m not sure it’s a curiosity and human need we should squash or immediately write off.
      While one of the children was wearing something we identify as a Native American headdress, the other was playing as a bear or raccoon. Assuming that they’re playing together, this puts the children playing the hunt. This, too, is a sacred thing.

    • Maybe instead of telling kids “Don’t play cowboys and Indians like that because it’s racist,” parents could still address the issue, but with a more positive approach. Like, “Hey, since you like playing Indians, why don’t we read this book about the [tribe or nation] together?” As the parent is reading the book, they can point out things like how different the various Native tribes are from each other, and how some objects are sacred and wouldn’t be played with.

  13. I think it’s great that this is being discussed, and I appreciate the obvious learning going on through that discussion. Thanks, Ariel and co!

    I guess for me, as a parent, it comes down to what imaginative play is teaching my kid about different cultures. When it comes to something like princess play I don’t think it’s the fancy dresses that are sending a un-healthy message about women, but the story that may go along with them. That can be altered. When it comes to native american play, for example, the pop culture image is part of the damaging story. I’m not sure it can be separated and personally wouldn’t encourage my kids to play with that stuff, seeing as neither my kids or myself are Native American.

    The photo, however, is a totally different thing. I find it thought provoking and a little uncomfortable which is a good thing when it comes to art. I agree that leading with it for a post advertising a family photographer is odd but that has been covered and well responded to.

    • Alissa, That is a great point about the stories that go along with imaginative play!

      I have a great story about princess play, actually! My 7-yr-old stepdaughter was pretty deep in the “I want to be a princess” phase last year. One time she was playing with a new friend she’d met on the playground and I overheard this conversation:

      Stepdaughter: We can both be princesses going on an adventure!
      Other girl: I don’t want to be a princess.
      Stepdaughter (hesitantly): Well… you could be my servant…
      Other girl: -awkward, insulted pause-
      Stepdaughter: Or we could both just be adventurers!

      I couldn’t help but smile. As someone really concerned with both feminist issues and issues of class inequality, I was glad one of my stepdaughter’s peers was challenging her on some of her assumptions hidden within her desire to be a princess. (More recently, she’s stopped saying she wants to be a princess, and has moved on to wanting to be an artist. Way better, imho! 🙂

  14. I just want to ditto some of these sentiments. I love when people with different views can have a discussion openly rather than defensively. This fosters empathy and understanding in a non threatening environment without the expectation that someone needs to change their opinion. Thank you for taking the time to flush this out and share it for your readers.

    Yes the conversation can be difficult, but I think this is showing that we are better off talking about it and having difficult conversations (with each other and with our children) rather than remaining silent and uncomfortable.

    BTW- the National Museum of the American Indian has some great resources for families & students/teachers, such as Do All Indians Live In Tipis https://nmaistore.si.edu/shop/product/2/?external. In my work as a museum educator, we try to use Heritage Months that are promoted in schools to debunk some myths and broaden the view of Native people to include the present.

  15. Thank you for hosting such a frank and respectful discussion of the topic. It’s brilliant you are willing to do so, and makes the whole concept of sponsored posts and advertising content a lot more palatable to me (i.e., that there’s not a moratorium on critique of things that are paid for!).

    I’m one of those who dislikes seeing hipsters wearing cheap dollar store headdresses, and I’ve just done a festival season here in Australia, so I’ve seen a bunch. I also was struck by the image, and wouldn’t put my own kids in such gear.

    Which brings me to my first and most minor point: it doesn’t look like a “caught playing” image. The kids look posed, dressed for, and aware of the camera. To me, it’s very much an image created to be viewed by adults (I don’t mean that in a gross way, I just mean it’s a grown-up aesthetic). So the “they’re just playing” argument doesn’t sit well with me for this particular example.

    Which leads me to my bigger point: “They’re just playing” isn’t a good defence of cultural appropriation by children’s toys at all. How would my Irish family feel about kids playing with flatbread and calling it Body of Christ, and drinking juice and calling is Blood of Christ at their tea table? Probably pretty ruffled. It’s not a good example, because white Catholics are hardly an oppressed group here and now (which is why I don’t buy “well, my kids dress up in leiderhosen” either)… but First Nations people say that these are sacred objects – that’s not a novelty description for our ethnographic interest and delectation, that’s their lives and beliefs. And these are lives and beliefs that have been consistently marginalised, erased, belittled and ended for hundreds of years, and in some cases still *are*. I don’t resent people wanting to defend that at all.

    We have this toy vs. disrespect argument in Australia, too, over things like golliwogs. Yep, people make and sell them at craft fairs, and will defend bitterly their right to do so, saying they’re just toys. We just had a national cultural argument about a comedy group appearing on national television in blackface, with people insisting that it was PC gone to far, and it was fine if it was intended to make white people laugh… Why are these things so important that we’ll defend them to the detriment of people who are still marginalised?

    *shrug* I don’t know the answers, and I don’t really mind what other people’s kids play with, but my kids have black dolls and white dolls but no golliwogs, space outfits, witch outfits, fairy outfits… but no mockups of indigenous peoples’ sacred clothing. That’s the decision I’m most comfortable with.

  16. Ariel, kudos to you and your team for the way you’ve handled such a sticky situation. I never fail to be impressed by the civility and openness that you all possess, and how you guys are always seeking to educate yourselves about your audience. Really, you gave such a thoughtful and thought-provoking response.

    I would also like to lend my support to the photographer. She chose to advertise on Offbeat. It really saddens me to see people judge her or tear her down. Aren’t we all “misfits” in some way or another? I love the Offbeat community because we are a community. We’re brought together because in some way or another, we don’t jive 100% with the mainstream. That means that we’re not always going to jive 100% with each other, either, but we are community.

    As a photographer, I’m troubled by some of the implications of this. She did not bring the headdress as a prop, but captured the children at play (and if the problem is because of play due to the nature of the sacred symbol, then I feel that the criticism should not be aimed at the photographer, but the parents–please don’t misinterpret that, though–I fully believe that children have the right to play). If it was her job to research the appropriation before including the image in her body of work, where does that end? Am I allowed to include an image of a child “playing” in a kimono, or of children pretending to be Catholic priests, etc, in my body of work?

    It is incredibly unfortunate that Native American heritage has been appropriated by society at large. I want my future child to have the fullest experiences possible in life. How far can expression and experiences extend if we cut our children off from them so that they do not have a chance to offend someone?

    • I am not very interested in criticizing the maker of this photograph because from what I can tell she was “doing her job” by documenting these kids in their natural behaviour. That’s what she was hired to do for the family, and as family photos go, this is a great one to put in the album.

      I guess that is where we get into tricky territory, though. If what someone is making is a personal family photograph, well, then it is their job to capture the images that the family will treasure. If, however, you are making an image that will be seen outside the family home, you are then responsible for that image. I don’t think the job of researching cultural appropriation and its implication EVER “ends” if you are creating representations that will make their way into the public realm. Again, I don’t think the photographer was doing anything wrong in providing these images for a client. But regardless of intent, this image exists in the world now. People see it, it will get circulated, it can pop up on Google image searches or be printed out or saved or re-posted or linked to. It exists, and it is culturally-loaded, and someone is responsible for it (not that it’s necessarily a BAD thing to be responsible for, but it is SOMETHING to make this kind of representation). It’s important that artists are not so bogged down by fear of offending someone that they are paralyzed in their work. It’s also important that people not create representations thoughtlessly or without any responsibility. (This is how we end up with advertising that romanticizes violence against women and other forms of inequality.)

      Once again, I am NOT saying that the photographer did something wrong. I’m just taking issue with the idea that just because something exists in the world (i.e. two kids playing with a headdress), it doesn’t mean that any and all representations of that thing are neutral images. When you make something into an image, you change it. It’s no longer “two kids playing with a headdress,” it’s now a REPRESENATION of something, and that is different. Not necessarily WRONG or BAD, but different in some important ways, and as a maker of images, you are responsible for deciding whether they are representations that you are comfortable with putting out into the world.

      • Wow. This is exactly what I was trying to find a way to say, and you said it so perfectly. I agree with this comment 100000%.

      • Exactly – children playing “Indian” and a photographer displaying an image of the children are two totally different acts with totally different meanings.

        It seems a little disingenuous to say that the photographer just happened to come across this scene – not because it isn’t natural but because the entire art of photography is choosing what to photograph and how to present it to the audience.

        I actually think this is a stunning image BECAUSE it plays on the history of how other people view Native Americans. Having it be black and white, with the boys looking straight at the camera with serious faces brings to mind portraits from the Old West. The controversy is what makes the picture good – you might as well own that controversy rather than say it’s just an accident or doesn’t mean anything.

  17. I think what bothers me the most about the internet in general is the rapid assumptions that keep occurring over and over and over again in the comments. This whole “incident” is just one more example of what I see all the time online.

    The internet has allowed us to view thousands of images in an incredibly rapid way. We view, react, then move onto the next image. Often reactions are guttural, which is totally normal and great, because it is our true emotion. We need to be able to react to what we see so that we can understand our own morals and values. Its totally normal to react negatively to something, to decipher why we feel the way we do and then to form an opinion. We need this in all parts of life.

    But where I have a problem with it all, is that the internet allows us to take one image and immediately turn it into a large assumption of the people in said image. We have no idea who the people in the photos are, we have no idea of their background, their wealth status, their identity. We have ONE image. But, this is often enough for us to form an opinion and an assumption of who these people are. Immediately, with emotion, without fully thinking out what we are going to say, with huge generalizations, cliches and stereotypes, we comment.

    We talk about acceptance, seeing both sides of the story, etc etc, on the offbeat empire. But then we see vapid generalizations made based on guttural reactions. Emotion is fantastic, but playing to and supporting emotion through cliches and stereotypes isn’t.

    Ignorance begets ignorance. If we want to curb the assumptions, cliches and generalizations in everyday society, it starts with us. I don’t want to see the aboriginal cliches anymore than I want to see the rich white kid cliches, or the gay cliches, or the blonde cliches, or the “insert new cliche here” cliches.

    Cliches and stereotypes have done nothing for society in the past, so lets stop using them all around.

    • I think probably a more succinct way of saying this is, that there is an important distinction to be made between how one feels about an image, ie. I feel like this image is racially stereotypical and culturally appropriative and ignorant; and how one judges the people involved in the image, ie. its a couple of rich white kids and a racist hipster photographer hopping on a trend bandwagon.

  18. Thanks, everyone, for contributing to something awesome.
    Thank you also for making me realise my priviledge…you see, I’m currently doing a UK version of Peter Pan for a local, mostly-white, group of kids in a community theatre setting…and we, of course, have the Native American characters present. This speaks perfectly to me as the Director on so many levels, since I had a problem internally with some of the “whooping” they have chosen to do (y’know, the stereotypical hand over mouth vocals)…and was struggling with how to address it. Are the American Indian tribes represented and called simply “Indians”? Yes. Are they kids? Yes. Are their costumes indicative of the culture? Yes again, and I don’t necesarrily see these as appropriatino because of the nature of theatre and portrayal….what I did have the issue with, and will be removing from my show, will be the whooping. And it will be a beautiful lesson to my kids that we can represent life through theatre, but we can also break stereotypes by doing so in a respectful, and still fun, way.

  19. I found this discussion fascinating. Personally, I think the photograph is fantastic and it reminds me of how boys specifically and many girls play. The stance is just so natural, and I didn’t find it offensive at all.

    On the other hand, if this was two adults in the same pose, I would be completely offended. I think there is something to be said about innocence in childhood, as well as just overall context.

    Plus, in my experience with Aboriginal peoples (and considering I am part-Aboriginal, and I work solely with Aboriginal children and mostly Aboriginal adults in my current job), I think they all have bigger cultural issues to worry about than a kid wearing a fake headdress. I think it is almost disrespectful to the culture for all of us to take up arms when the majority of us don’t know much about First Nations culture and we know nothing about the family or the photographer.

  20. I find this discussion fascinating. As a kid, I became slightly obsessed with “playing Indians” for a whole summer. My mother did the smart thing and encouraged my interest by taking me to the library and getting some books and movies on Native American culture. Whenever my friends and I would play, we were very serious about doing it “right”, whatever that meant to our eight-year-old selves. My point being is that my mother could have stopped the play as being culturally insensitive. But she redirected it into me learning about the real culture and traditions, not just what I had latched onto after watching a movie. This theme was played out multiple times over my childhood. The obsessions and ideas that kids get can be used to educate them. There’s a really fine line between imaginative play, where we try on a life or culture unfamilier to us, and cultural appropriation, where we take bits and pieces of another culture without being respectful of the whole.

  21. As a Native mother to two children who have white fathers, I actually encourage them and their friends to play like this. For me it’s the perfect opportunity to teach those children about my culture. If play like this was encouraged and used as an opportunity to teach maybe more adults would better understand why appropriating native culture is a big deal.

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