SUZY: I’m from Miami, and I’m more familiar with chongas (the Cuban version of the chola). We have a similar thing going on as cholas in SoCal do, but it’s very classed and racialized. Certain aspects of being a chonga were just part of the regional style (big hoops, dark lip liner, penciled eyebrows), and I was one of millions of Cubans who made up the majority of the population of Miami. But once it is removed from its original environment or context, and taken to the mainstream, or predominantly white communities, Latin@s who rock that style are pegged with a derogatory label like ghetto, while Gwen does it and it’s fashion. Whenever I did my weird chonga/punk hybrid, just the way Gwen did, I wasn’t regarded as fashionable. I was regarded as trashy.
With the Indian stuff, I can’t speak to its cultural significance, but I did read this essay about “indo-chic” and its problems when appropriated. A side note: When I was 15 I became obsessed with Bollywood. I used to wear bindis and other Indian jewelry, and would be really flattered when anyone asked me if I was Indian. But in fact I didn’t know anything about Indian culture besides what was shown to me in Bollywood movies. I did the same thing with Native American culture after befriending a couple of Seminole girls in Girl Scouts. I’m actually descended from the Taino and Mayan people, but I was just tickled when people asked me if I was Seminole because they saw me hanging out with these girls. So I went to a couple pow-wows and bought different cultural signifiers without understanding them. Looking back, I was really naïve; my friends’ families fought tooth and nail to keep practicing their cultures in white America. My friends’ reservation had been set on fire by KKK members at least three times within their lifetime. In the early 20th century, indigenous children had been through state-run conditioning programs that forbade them to know their language and dress in their traditional garb. So, you know, I had to stop using these things as dress-up, because they had more significance than I could ever imagine. I guess I can’t compare something like chonga style to a ceremonial war bonnet, because it’s more of a regional or ethnic thing than a specifically religious/cultural tradition such as a bindi.
ANAHEED: I am ashamed to say I wore a bindi when I was in India in my early 20s. I was hanging out with Indian girls my age there and they were all wearing them purely as decoration, not as a specific religious/cultural practice. They would buy them as stickers and put them on in the bathroom and hand me one too. Girls in India wear bindis just to look cute/cool too, you know? So I’m not disagreeing with anything you’re saying, Suzy, but it’s not like only white people divorce these things from their religious/cultural roots. A Latin@ isn’t some pure “ethnic” life force that can’t be self-aware and can’t reference something from chola or chonga culture in a one-step-removed “fashion” way. So WHERE IS THE LINE, you know what I mean?
SUZY: I think the hardest thing is trying to figure out where that line is drawn. Eventually cultural signifiers lose their meaning, like what is happening with the bindi. A bindi can be a religious symbol, but it can also be just a stick-on jewel. I’m not gonna yell at anyone for wearing one, but they should at the very least research its significance (even if it’s been secularized). I do get offended when someone dresses up as Carmen Miranda, because her entire character served to make fun of poor black women in South America. But when a white girl does the chonga look? I might giggle at her or get annoyed because UGH, I can’t do that without being “ghetto” or “trashy.” It’s not tantamount to genocide, but I still get a little resentful. I don’t know how else to say it. I’m still trying to process.
LAIA: I don’t get offended when people dress up as Carmen Miranda, because she is a specific thing from a specific time.
SUZY: She is from a different time period, but her character helped set a precedent for other stereotypes of Latin@s that I think were/are harmful.
LAIA: No, I understand. I just don’t get offended.
JENNY: Why is it that when white people don clothing or sartorial signifiers from another culture, like feathered headdresses or bindis, it’s considered cool and fashionable and hip, but when an actual Indian person wears a bindi or a Native person wears indigenous clothing it’s considered weird, or some kind of resistance to assimilating into American society? To speak from personal experience: at the same time that I was afraid to wear this really beautiful cheongsam that my grandmother had made for me, there were white girls in my school who were showing up in “mandarin collar” shirts or other clothing that was “ethnically inspired.”
One thing that I think is really important is to recognize that having malicious, evil, racist intent is not a prerequisite for racism. I don’t know many people who would openly say HEY I AM A RACIST AND ENJOY BEING ONE TO OTHERS AND DOING RACIST THINGS, and yet I have encountered racism over and over in my life and have seen it every day. Sometimes I see the very people who say I AM A GOOD PERSON doing things that are extremely racist and extremely hurtful. I think once we get over our need to be validated as a “good” people, we can deal with the reality that we can want to be good, we can want to be thoughtful, we can want to never be racist, and despite all that, we can still inadvertently or ignorantly do something that is racist and hurtful. That’s a lot to ask—to ask people with privilege to acknowledge that their privilege allows them to commit hurtful acts without even realizing it (i.e., one major privilege of being privileged). And to ask them to cede some control—to give up this idea that you can control how “good” you are. Because maybe you think you genuinely decided that you would love to wear some “Navajo beads” and you think you put forth only “good vibes” while wearing these beads, but—oh no!—someone who identifies as Native told you that your beads are offensive, and in order to even begin to understand why this perfectly innocent thing you did would be hurtful to anyone, you have to be willing to allow that maybe your desire to be “good” doesn’t mean your actions will always be understood by others as “good.”