Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Strut Your Stuff, Devalue Your Heritage

New Yorkers love a parade.

And not just when astronauts return from space, classical musicians return from Cold War Russia, or home teams win national trophies.

From the massive St. Patrick's Day parade along Manhattan's Fifth Avenue to the tiny Norwegian Day Parade along Brooklyn's Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, virtually every cultural and ethnic people group in what is arguably the world's most diverse city has their day in the festive sun.

Most of the parades take place in Manhattan, but wherever they're held, and whatever their size, you can count on three things:  traffic congestion,  floats, and politicians.  The smaller parades may attract only a local congressional representative or the borough president (each borough in the city has its own president).  The signature parades, like the St. Patrick's, Gay Pride, and Columbus Day (Italian) parades, often bring out the mayor, governor, senators, and anybody else hoping to curry favor with the particular segment of the electorate celebrating their heritage.

And usually, New Yorkers, regardless of their heritage, begrudgingly allow their neighbors to take over the neighborhood with floats, bands, noise, and all the other trappings of a good old-fashioned parade.  After all, it's the diversity that helps make New York what it is, right?

This year at the West Indian-American Day Parade in Brooklyn, held every Labor Day and attracting over a million people annually, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed that the city's cultural pageantry "shows you the diversity of New York, and it shows you why this city is doing better than other cities around the country.”

Better, in what way?

What Is It About the West Indians' Parade?

More than any other parade, the West Indian-American Day Parade (WIADP) has a long history of degenerating into violence.  Last year, City Councilman Jumaane Williams was arrested at the parade after allegedly getting into an altercation with police, and in a separate incident, a shooting near the parade left three people dead and two cops injured.

This year, within the mass of spectators and participants constituting the parade, two people were stabbed to death and two more wounded by gunfire.  People have also been shot to death during the parade in 2003 and 2005, while stabbings took place in 2003, 2006, and 2007.

Perhaps just as blatant as the physical violence, however, is the overt sexual promiscuity which takes place during the WIADP.  Women attend the parade dressed in skimpy two-piece swim suits and colorful headdresses with plumes of feathers.  It may look like Carnival in Rio, or even Mardi Gras in New Orleans, except some of the West Indian women perform lap dances on both bystanders and fellow parade participants in raunchy displays that would likely be deemed illegal in other contexts across the city.

Of course, the sexually explicit spectacle during what's supposed to be a family event could be all one big mistake.  Maybe those women aren't really celebrating anything that has to with being of West Indian descent.  Maybe they're parade-crashers.  Maybe the folks who organize the WIADP have to fight every year to keep those women out.

Something tells me, however, that these women are part of the parade's attraction.  And that's supposed to be something to celebrate?

Ostensibly, such a denigration of women is supposed to celebrate something good about the cultures shared by Barbados, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Lucia, Jamaica, and Grenada.  Ahh, the celebration of culture!  And culture is good, right?

Isn't ironic, then, that when conservatives decry such behavior as a typical WIADP scene as shameful, we're pilloried as prudish.  But when feminists like New York City council member Christine Quinn, a prominent lesbian politician, serve as the parade's grand marshal, it's supposedly culturally relevant.

So, how is encouraging women to denigrate themselves by dressing and behaving so lewdly culturally relevant?  We don't want that type of behavior in our president, or our governors, or CEOs, or school teachers, or Cub Scout leaders.  Why is it OK when you're a West Indian woman?

Heritage Is No Defense

It's really not, is it?  The media can't admit it, because look at all the revenue from people clicking through the parade's photos online.  The politicians can't admit it, at least not the ones in New York, because it would cost them hundreds of thousands of votes.  Many West Indians themselves likely wouldn't admit it, either, since they really don't like their women portrayed purely as sex objects.  I have several friends of West Indian descent, and I'm sure they'd be appalled to see this type of parade.

Which means that some ethnic practices that cultures celebrate really have little merit, doesn't it?  Which means that cultures themselves are not pure creations of human enlightenment, right?  Which means that culture alone is not a valid justification for doing something.

Just as you and I would probably freak out if we had a daughter act the way some of the women acted at the WIADP yesterday, we should not tolerate things that are wrong just because a culture accepts them.  Nor should we accept something just because some culture accepts them.

Whether it's the type of music churches use during corporate worship services, or the pagan traditions we incorporate into our sacred celebrations, or the way business is conducted in countries that allow bribery, or the way some people groups slaughter members believed to be adulterous, culture itself is not the free pass to permissibility or value.

Culture can be a factor in deciding something's value or usefulness, it can help explain history, and it can help shape an identity in a world that's increasingly shrinking.

But in the same way those shameless people flaunted what they call their heritage on the streets of Brooklyn yesterday, culture is hardly a pure arbiter of what's right and wrong.

Does that mean some cultures are better than others?

No.  Just that some cultures do a better job of not flaunting their immorality.
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