It’s no secret our kids are growing up in a pretty different world than we did, with iPads and apps and smart TVs and video games to occupy their every waking moment. But at least one thing has remained the same all these years: kids love to play dress-up. They like to emulate their role models and people they find interesting.
My own kids have dressed up as astronauts, superheroes, Ninja Turtles, Harry Potter characters, and princesses. But does it cross the line if kids dress up to look like someone from another culture? Bloggers Patty and Heidi Maloy from The Gala Gala Gals say no. But some Internet commenters disagree.
One of their blog posts, which was originally published back in 2012, has made recent headlines after it was resurfaced on Tumblr, where users left some scathing comments last week calling them both racist. The post in question showed images from a little girl’s birthday party, which was set up to mimic a Japanese tea party. Images included a branch with pink “flowers” made out of tissue paper, origami crafts, Asian-style seating using a cardboard box and pillows on the floor, and snacks that included tea, chopsticks, and tiny pieces of cake.
And finally, the party guests dressed up as Geishas. They wore kimonos, painted their faces white with red lips, and posed for a photo shoot with their hands together to look the part.
One Tumblr user was not having it, and called Gala Gals Gals out for racism and cultural appropriation, writing:
“The makeup is clearly reflective of traditional Geisha makeup which is yellow face and therefore racist. Furthermore the girl is wearing a kimono, a garment that has for ages carried cultural significance. Assuming that she is white how you can you think this ok? What rock do you live under? I suggest you educate yourself on the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.”
Other Tumblr users, however, responded by countering that last point. One commenter, who identified themselves as Japanese, noted:
“A vast majority of Japanese people actually enjoy other people making an effort to spread and enjoy Japanese culture, and encourage it … A common omiage (gift) for foreigners from Japanese people is traditional Japanese things such as kimonos, tea sets, shisa dog statues, etc.”
The commenter went on to add that Japanese culture is highly influenced by other cultures, including Russian, Chinese, Korean, and European (just as American culture has been). That is, after all, how cultures evolve — by learning from each other and appreciating each other. And if you ask me, this kids party seems to do just that — it celebrates a culture rather than insulting it.
The Gala Gala Girls were not creating a party for their children to mock another culture. And it wasn’t distasteful or even disrespectful. If anything, the girls were learning through their imitation. Isn’t that what we want for our kids? Or do we want them to never experience, dress up as, or mimic another culture for fear of being offensive? Should we forever keep them in their suburban American bubble?
Despite the backlash, Heidi Maloy, co-founder of Gala Gala Gals, tells Babble that the feedback has been primarily positive and supportive.
“While there have been a handful of negative comments from people offended for various reasons, many more have been complimentary of our creative and fun attempt to appreciate another culture,” she shares.
In fact, Heidi says that her favorite reactions so far have been from Japanese readers themselves, or those with Japanese connections.
“They, and we, recognize our faults in a few of the details and nuances, but see the underlying interest and positive intent,” she explains. “Every response from Japan has put a smile on my face.”
Heidi also tells Babble that she thinks there’s a definite distinction between cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, and even cultural insensitivity.
“I also think by misunderstanding, ‘cultural appropriation’ becomes ‘cultural segregation’ and I believe that is a dangerous step,” she continues. “Cultures have been sharing, borrowing, and appreciating each other’s art, architecture, food, skills, goods, traditions, fashion, etc. for millennia. I don’t like the idea that we have to ‘stay in our lanes.’ I think it’s more dangerous to teach this ‘segregated’ cultural identity to our children than to try and share various ideas with them.”
Heidi also points out that Caitlyn, the child featured in the photo, is not just “a little white girl,” as she’s been portrayed by commenters. She’s actually part Mexican, Italian, and Irish. Now a few years older, Heidi says Caitlyn has grown up to have a great appreciation for other cultures, and she wouldn’t change one thing.
Although the family lives in a predominantly white suburban town, Heidi says they have friends in Norway, have spent time doing service in a small town in Ecuador recently, and long to travel the world exploring other cultures even more.
In my opinion, it sounds like Heidi of Gala Gala Gals is doing something right if she’s raising kids who appreciate other cultures. So if dressing up as a Geisha and imitating Japanese culture helped her become a more worldly person, I can’t help but wonder: How is that really a bad thing?