Did Casual Racism In '90s Movies Create An Insensitive Generation?

Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney.
Another day, another white girl in a Native American headdress. It's hard for anyone to claim ignorance of cultural appropriation in the wake of the outrage over Ireland Baldwin, Gwen Stefani, and so many other white stars who have donned Native American headdresses. And while nothing excuses the behavior, the pop culture of our youth might play a part in why young women think this kind of casual racism is okay.

Nineties kids are a nostalgic bunch. The appearance of a grainy Dunkeroos commercial in our Facebook feed can ignite yelps of glee. So I was excited when — while flipping through channels one weekend morning — I stumbled across Man of the House. This '95 comedy starred an adorable Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a scheming pre-teen angling to keep potential step dad, Chevy Chase, from moving in permanently. I had watched the movie countless times and there were certain scenes I remembered perfectly, like the heartbreaking slow-mo wave from the departing deadbeat dad. Yet, somehow I failed to remember this cute kids' movie was racist as hell.

For those who need a refresher, JTT's ultimate get-rid-of-the-father-figure plan involved signing them both up for a kind of Boy Scouts stand-in. While Full House — another '90s institution — dodged mentioning the Girl Scouts with the innocuous Honey Bees, Man of the House replaced the Boy Scouts with the Indian Guides (a YMCA group that did exist until 2001 when it was renamed YMCA Adventure Guides).
The Indian Guides are a group of white kids and white dads who spend their time wearing Native American headdresses and giving each other "Indian names." When they're excited about something, they make the kind of stereotypical war cry that would prompt a cultural sensitivity seminar if a third grader did it, let alone a bunch of grown actors (not to mention the adult writers who came up with this garbage). Watch as the white kids from Seattle throw tomahawks, erect tepees, and do a rain dance. It almost makes Katy Perry's American Music Awards performance look downright respectful.

And, while it's unsettling to realize we were absorbing this kind of retrograde thinking along with instruction on sharing and caring, there's still hope the next generation will learn, from a very early age, that cultural appropriation is not ok.
In an episode of Girl Meets World — the Disney Channel's "sequel" series to Boy Meets World — Cory (Ben Savage) talks to his daughter about the Harajuku street style she has embraced. He also goes on to discuss the importance of remembering where that kind of fashion comes from and who has an original claim over it.

Beyond TV shows and movies, there are the young stars themselves who can teach kids the difference between appreciation and appropriation. Some people struggled to grasp the reasoning behind Amandla Stenberg's take-down of Kylie Jenner's cornrows earlier this month, while others reacted with baffling tone deafness. But many of Stenberg's young fans got what she was saying immediately — and they could go right to her Twitter feed and read her words directly.

The hope is that going forward, everyone will step away from the headdresses and realize how damaging cultural appropriation really is. In an ideal world, if a movie as blatantly racist as Man of the House somehow made it into production today, kids would simply know to turn it off.

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