Wednesday’s revocation of the Sydney University staff party’s “Mexican fiesta” theme, as organised by the Vice-Chancellor’s office, has been met with virulent backlash.
Much of the response has been indignant: that the theme was in no way racist and that the party should go ahead as planned.
As members of the university’s Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR), our interests lie in combating and challenging systems of race-based privilege and oppression not only in the campus community, but in public debate at large.
We support the decision to rescind the party’s theme and reject claims that a “Mexican fiesta” is a harmless bit of fun.
The issue with events like the “Mexican fiesta” party is that it is not, as many suggest, a “celebration of culture”.
In reality, it makes light, and perpetuates harmful stereotypes, of traditional culture.
Mockery of a culture, particularly in an influential and academically-sanctioned environment that purports to be inclusive and educational, serves only to further marginalise non-white students’ voices that are systemically silenced through informal and formal systems of racism.
It’s important to note that this is not the first time such an event has been planned at our university and it is unlikely to be the last.
In 2012, St. Paul’s residential college held a party with the theme “end of the British raj”. Imagine if an Indigenous Australians-themed party was held, where faces were painted and didgeridoos encouraged as props?
Let us be clear: there is an important distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.
Cultural appropriation is as insidious a form of racism as any. It involves taking specific parts of cultural identity and practices and commodifying and trivialising them.
Those who practice cultural appropriation, such as the donning of a native American headdress at a music festival or a Japanese geisha costume at Halloween, wilfully ignore the cultural significance of these articles.
But here’s the rub: cultural appropriation is informed by several hundred years of imperialism, racism, exoticism, orientalism, colonisation, genocide, forced assimilation, and dispossession from land, language, and culture.
Cultural exchange occurs within a space of respect and engagement; it is an experience framed by invitation. Restaurants offering ethnic cuisines or film festivals showcasing cultural works do not appropriate, but rather invite a participatory exchange of culture.
It is a strawman, a fallacy, to claim that we now cannot eat Mexican food. Enjoying authentic cuisine is the polar opposite of donning a simplified costume steeped in stereotypes.
A Mexican-themed party, regardless of the intentions behind it, does not foster a space for a positive exchange of culture, but reinforces a simplistic and trivial view of it.
While cultural appropriation might not look or sound like a textbook definition of racial discrimination (such as rants on public transport, or the emails sent by University of Sydney poetry professor Barry Spurr), it is still destructive in every form to Australian multiculturalism.
As a collective, we are worried that as long as the toxic undercurrent of racism is allowed to continue, more and more marginalised voices will be stifled.
In a country where our elected representatives are overwhelmingly white and male, and where our national curriculum is in the hands of men like Barry Spurr, the more racism in all its insidious forms will be passed off as just a “bit of fun”.
Eden Caceda is a member of the University of Sydney’s Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR). This piece was co-written by ACAR members Fahad Ali, Tom Joyner, Naaman Zhou, Lamisse Hamouda, Whitney Duan, Sonia Feng, Bridget Harilaou and Oscar Monaghan.