Culture Check

I fell into Tik Tok at the beginning of quarantine as a way to find quick laughs that didn’t tax my rapidly deteriorating attention span. Around the second week, I started seeing posts with the caption “So I heard we were sharing our cultures” accompanied by the song “Laxed (Siren Beat)” by @Jawsh 685. The videos start with people dancing in casual Western/American attire and then switch to traditional dress of their country or culture.

There’s so much joy in the variations. Some of my favorites are from @monicajoelleo, @notoriouscree, @ abenaakuaba, and @that_brown_couple. Like many other Tik Toks since COVID-19, the videos are increasingly intergenerational. I am so here for this. Celebration, instead of shame. The format allows for a user to showcase more than one heritage or outfit without making it disruptive. There are additional variations, like @asaptuppy offering a Māori interpretation and inviting others to duet with their own traditional dance.  I especially appreciate how the posts don’t center Whiteness; while comments make clear that learning is happening, education and explanation aren’t the point.

Contrast this normalization to Asian Pacific Heritage Month, or Native American Heritage Month, or Black History Month, or whatever other limited time period you want to grant BIPOC and compare it to the rest of the school year.

When it’s not International-Ethnic-World-We’re-Not-Racist-Colonizers Party Day, how welcome are our traditional stories, food, dance, language, and dress in the classroom? How supportive are you of staff and students who suppress themselves so they don’t get mocked for being weird or harassed for not being American enough? Do you teach all staff and students the difference between appropriation and appreciation? Do you shut down the sexualization of  the “exotic”? Are you only an ally in the comfort of your classroom or have you moved for changes in official school policy to support us if it doesn’t already? Do you protect us or pressure us to assimilate?

If a student wears a barong tagalog to your class’s formal meal and another student asks why they are wearing a trash bag, what do you do?

Of course, I have to turn the lens on myself as well. I couldn’t do a Tik Tok culture challenge if I wanted to. I don’t own a Maria Clara or pañuelo. I haven’t worn anything like that in fifteen years. And why not? That stuff is cute! I have always loved how light plays on piña, but I remember how I felt as hearing comments made when I wore Filipino clothing casually out in public.

I don’t need your permission to celebrate my culture, but I don’t need your mess either. Our students definitely don’t need it, what they need is the safety to be themselves. Social media allows people to understand that even if isolated, they are not alone. Would I have those items in my closet already if I’d had Tik Tok as a teenager? I can’t say, but what I can do now is help create a world where we can all be ourselves, authentically and completely.

The last time I wore a kimona: 2005.
My mom and I (right) in 2005, the last time I wore a kimona.

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE  to read yesterday’s blog post by Min Pai (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).