Is wearing a sombrero “cultural appropriation?” If you don a serape — or a guayabera, a kimono, a Hawaiian shirt — does that make you racist?
Well, please don’t revoke my correctness card, but I don’t think so.
Maybe it’s just because I view such items as staples of Tex-Mex culture. As a kid growing up in Central Texas, I could expect Mexican-themed souvenirs from every across-the-border vacation: embroidered blouses, maracas, those lovely hand-painted, child-sized chairs.
So, my first impulse was to offer the benefit of the doubt to the Baylor University fraternity now in hot water over a recent Mexico-themed party.
To date, the only evidence made public has been social media photos of students dressed in some of the aforementioned garb, which seems harmless enough.
More concerning are reports that some guests at the Kappa Sigma party dressed as maids and construction workers, that some wore dark makeup, and that they joined in a hearty chant of “Build that wall!”
Entitled white kids who engage in that particular piece of political rudeness are a cringe-worthy embarrassment.
So the point is well-made that you don’t really “celebrate” someone while excluding them from the festivities.
“You may think that you have celebrated our culture,” said Damian Moncada, president of the Hispanic Students Association at the Waco, Texas, college. “If you wanted to celebrate our culture, you would have invited us to that party.”
Baylor is a ripe target these days; the gravitational weight of its appalling sexual abuse scandal inevitably pulls lesser offenses into the public domain. If its boosters and regents think the university is now being scrutinized through a microscope for every little thing, they have nobody to blame but you-know-who.
Back, though, to those fun-lovin’ Kappa Sigs, whose Baylor chapter was suspended after the “racially insensitive event” Saturday night.
On campus, angry students protested the frat Monday, calling for “cultural awareness” measures to be instituted campus-wide.
To many observers, this might smack of some of the more absurd “cultural appropriation” debates that have erupted on U.S. campuses over such innocuous issues as hoop earrings, dreadlocks and cafeteria Chinese food.
“Snowflake” is, to the left, an irritating term of derision, but some sensitivities really do strike some of us as dubious.
There is, however, a yawning abyss between embracing the elements of another culture and spiteful mockery. I don’t think the word “fiesta” is any more off-limits to gringos than falafel or Tim Hortons doughnuts.
What is outside the bounds of plain decency, however, is ugly mockery of racial stereotypes, of defining people you don’t know personally in crude, derisive caricatures.
So which was it at Baylor? Hard to tell, because intent is so often obscured by human ambiguity.
Here’s a suggestion: Just ask them what they were celebrating.
How many of the partygoers could actually detail the meaning of Cinco de Mayo (“Fifth of May,”) which reportedly was idiotically hijacked as “Drinko de Mayo” for the frat fiesta?
How many of them could tell you that there’s a serious historical event behind their giddy ingestion of Coronas and margaritas?
It’s not up to me. But I’m willing to let them slide (a little) if — without the aid of Google — they can offer just this broad-strokes outline:
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the David-and-Goliath victory of Mexican forces over an invading French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. French imperialists went on to install an even larger army and the puppet Austrian emperor Maximilian, and it took until 1867 for the Mexicans to get rid of them, thereby ending the last European military invasion of the American continents.
If they can competently cover those basics, maybe they should get a pass.
If their knowledge of Mexican culture and history is limited to spring break in Cancun, maybe they shouldn’t.
Jacquielynn Floyd is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.