I hate when we refer to the US as a “melting pot”. The Schoolhouse Rock song Great American Melting Pot sounds horribly racist as an adult. That phrase is meant to illustrate how accepting and diverse this nation is but what it’s really saying is, “Assimilate! Melt into our dominant white culture!” Mainstream United States culture is white. There are cultural centers and ethnic grocery stores, little outposts of culture that are erased in the mainstream. We try to make up for this a few times a year by wildly celebrating “cultural” holidays.
Do Irish people appreciate American St. Patrick’s Day? Do any Mexican people appreciate American Cinco de Mayo? Has anyone ever felt honored by being worn as a Halloween costume? Probably not. Gustavo Arellano, who writes the awesome Ask a Mexican column, shared his views on Cinco de Mayo or “Gringo de Mayo” on CNN’s In America blog. Spoiler alert: he thinks it’s pointless.
Pointless? But we’re so excited to celebrate cultural diversity! Our good intentions are thwarted by a history of racism and ignorance, both of which are exacerbated by white privilege. We don’t even know we’re being ignorant and racist. This is because privilege is invisible to those who have it. White people generally can’t see whiteness, or how it constantly advantages us in society. I try to be aware of my privilege. I still mess up all the time. I make hurtful mistakes and throw around my white privilege, even when I’m trying to be conscious of it.
Just the other day, I referred to my friend as Mexican when she is, in fact, Hispanic. Those are not the same! I immediately followed this moment of racial misidentification by asking where her family was from. I was generally curious. I would like to know more about her family, about who taught her Spanish, what her experiences have been. But asking, “Where are you from?” is not the same as asking those questions. Asking, “Where are you from?” implies an inherent Otherness. My friend said, “My family is from the same state I am from, and we always have been. It was your idiot white ancestors who showed up, enacted horrific genocides, and still have the audacity to assume that any culture that isn’t your own must have come from somewhere else. Get out of my face!” …okay, she didn’t say any of that and was very kind about unpacking my moment of white privilege.
I had a moment of casual racism. It wasn’t overt or explicit- I wasn’t directly stating that I view Whiteness as superior. But that is what I was unintentionally implying. It’s hard to explain racism to white people, because we don’t recognize when we’re exerting our cultural dominance. We think that if we treat everyone the same and view everyone as a human not a race, we can’t possibly be racist. This results in a lot of really uncomfortable moments of casual racism. Those moments reinforce the dominant white narrative, and further marginalize and oppress every non-white person.
That’s why we need to be especially aware of our actions on cultural holidays. Today, Cinco de Mayo, will probably involve a lot of white people getting drunk on “Mexican” beer and eating “Mexican” food, and wearing sombreros and ponchos, never minding that most of the beer, food, and clothing are American bastardizations of an entire culture.
We need to pause when we think we’re honoring a culture, because most of the time we’re actually engaging in more of that harmful casual racism. Who gets hurt by our inaccurate and insensitive (though very enthusiastic) representations? At the end of the day, white people get to take the costume off. The sombrero and poncho get thrown in the closet, and we go on with our lives. Meanwhile, we’ve just reinforced a lot of stereotypes and historical and cultural inaccuracies that have real ramifications. Really, when was the last time you saw a Mexican wearing a sombrero or a poncho? This is the difference between talking about race (“I’m not racist!”) and acting race. For most white people, our actions and representations, which we don’t mean to be racist, show our ignorance about race.
The fact is: nobody ever dresses up like white people. There isn’t a holiday where we celebrate and embody stereotypes about white folks. This is because we don’t view whiteness as Other. In our minds, white is the de facto universal race. We see things through a lens of whiteness, which problematizes our attempts to ‘honor’ and ‘celebrate’ different cultures.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go ask my neighbors to kindly stop celebrating Cinco de Mayo by drinking Coronas and eating Taco Bell while making immigration jokes in bad Spanish accents.