Cultural Stereotypes: Why They Aren’t Necesarily Bad For Your Kids

One Christmas in New Mexico, we piled the kids in the car and drove up to San Ildelphonso Pueblo to see the “Matachines” dances.”

Located about 25 miles northwest of Santa Fe, San Ildelphonso is one of the Eight Northern Pueblos and home of the late Maria Martinez, world-reknown for her “black on black” pottery.

We made our way to where the spectators stood bundled against the cold, and waited for the dances to begin under a winter-blue sky.

Later, after the masked and beribboned men had completed the centuries old choreography, our family would not be among those invited to stay and eat. Unlike some of the more fortunate guests, we knew none of the San Ildelphonso tribal members.

I am certain that what remains in my kids’ memories of that experience, and countless others they’ve had, is just a quick snapshot: Dancing, colorful costumes. A stereotype.

But stereotypes can have cumulative effect over time. They can build tolerance and respect for others whose languages, clothing and art forms are different from our own. Children can begin to understand that in some larger way, they are part of the dance; part of humanity.

Last fall I read about a group of Ohio University students who railed against what they called “racist” Halloween costumes. Their campaign, “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume,” garnered national attention.


Members of the group, Students Teaching against Racism in Society (STARS), were outraged that some students attending OU’s popular Halloween bash represented people of minority and ethnic groups as stereotypes. Located in Athens, Ohio, OU ranks number one among the nation’s party campuses, due in large part to that once-a-year blow-out.

At first thought, one might ask who could blame the protestors. People from others cultures have a right to be respected. News reports said some of the costumes definitely flouted political correctness.

But I think the student group inflated the definition of racism to the point of ridiculousness. What’s wrong with trying to understand other cultures by slipping into someone else’s shoes?

Is there truly any other way to gain empathy? And if a crude facsimile of an Arabian sheik or geisha girl causes someone to be offended, should such activity be banned?

Consider the use of “blackface.” We wouldn’t use it today, at Halloween or any other time – except perhaps in a performance depicting the history of minstrel shows – because our society has grown beyond a primitive understanding of African American culture. But at one time blackface did serve a purpose. Here’s a bit of background from Wikipedia:

“Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of African-American culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens. Blackface’s groundbreaking appropriation, exploitation, and assimilation of African-American culture—as well as the inter-ethnic artistic collaborations that stemmed from it—were but a prologue to the lucrative packaging, marketing, and dissemination of African-American cultural expression and its myriad deritive forms in today’s popular world culture.”

Would the OU protestors also tell people to stay away from museums? Museums are full of cultural stereotypes. Folk dances, films, multi-cultural festivals, ethnic foods—all could be offensive to someone.

The world is full of differences. When we expose our children to them, aren’t we just inoculating them against the boogeyman?

Just as kids “get” Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, they “get” ethnic costumes. It’s a way for them to assimilate new images and information into the world they know and trust.

Big people would do well to try on a new hat now and then, too. FFG

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