Cultural Appropriation? What the Hell IsThat? Cinco de Mayo Fight at UNH


The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is in the national news, unfortunately. Last week a big controversy erupted on campus when a black student, Danique, filmed a run-in with another student, Michael, who was wearing a poncho to celebrate Cinco De Mayo. The video went viral, and the passion on her part is hard to miss as she berates Michael for perpetuating a stereotype and for not realizing how wearing it as a privileged white man “actually affects people’s lives.” Many online comments in reaction to this video are just what you’d expect: attacks on Danique, often in the crudest language possible. Since then there have been several other incidents at UNH including harassing Danique, racist graffiti, swastikas, ….college kids can be such idiots.

Let’s start with the incident where it all began and try to sort it out:

1) Is wearing certain articles of clothing insulting to Mexicans?

It depends.

Wearing an oversized sombrero clearly plays into a stereotype, as would wearing fake moustaches, or faking a Mexican accent.

But the poncho?   Hasn’t that made the leap into a normal part of the American wardrobe? It’s like objecting to wearing a parka because it rightfully belongs to the Inuit. But Danique’s point is that even if Michael doesn’t realize it, by wearing the poncho he is showing disrespect to an entire culture, and that culture’s distinguishing clothing should be kept for it alone and its celebrations likewise.

Maybe.  This leads to the second point:

2) Should celebrations of an ethnic nature be reserved for that ethnic group?

It depends.

Most major ethnic holidays are religious in nature and probably no one would be so bold as to try to “celebrate” along with that particular group in such a case. About the only comparable holiday is St. Patrick’s Day and I don’t think the Irish object to anyone celebrating in whatever way they want.   However, I believe Danique’s point was that the Mexicans were traditionally an underclass and to try to turn Cinco de Mayo into another St. Patrick’s-type celebration replete with costumes and kegs is a violation of an entire people in that it trivializes their status and usurps their attempt to commemorate their struggle. Michael disagrees, and as it turns out, with good reason.

But before we get to that…

What comes across most clearly in this video is that these are two people who do not understand each other’s position, and there is very little hope that any understanding will arrive given the heightened emotions of the confrontation.   It’s hard to get anywhere when people are yelling.    The next step should be this: the entire UNH community needs to understand where Danique is coming from, and Danique and her friends also need to understand where Michael is coming from. Cancel classes, cancel tests…talk, rationally, and listen.

The fact is, Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated around the country for decades in the manner that Danique is objecting to. Denver, Chicago, San Antonio, New York—all make it a big deal with people dressing up like Mexicans, mariachi bands, and pub crawls. I think I’m right in saying that the Mexican-Americans like it this way—up to a point of course.  Michael is just following in their footsteps.

College campuses never shrink from an opportunity to party, meaning of course to get drunk. Turning Cinco de Mayo into “Drinko de Mayo” as one proud UNHer wrote on a sign, is the same kind of foolishness that gets frat boys into trouble every year.  Danique should be applauded for objecting to that particular behavior, but its not clear that Michael was in fact on his way to the nearest keg.

Let’s hope by this time the leaders at UNH have done their jobs and raised everyone’s consciousness a couple of notches at least.  Let’s hope the students at UNH are up to the task of opening their minds and coming to grips with that most amazing of all realizations:  not everyone thinks like I do…

If you can’t do it on a college campus, what hope is there for world peace?


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