Photo from studentnewspaper.org
By Dara Bahk
Be wary of cultural appropriation this coming Halloween.
Cultural appropriation, which refers to when members of a dominant culture adopt certain aspects of a minority culture, is a rather familiar and controversial topic in this current climate, and with good reason. It differs from cultural exchange, acculturation and especially assimilation. Cultural appropriation implicates an imbalance of power present between two cultures, a byproduct from a prior history of colonialism and oppression imposed by — you guessed it — the dominant culture.
Due to the fact that the cultural elements taken are often misused, with the original meaning or intent of these elements having been profusely distorted or absent altogether, the act of cultural appropriation is both offensive as well as degrading. This is radically separate from appreciating or admiring a culture. It is imperative to emphasize the harm present, as it often draws upon stereotypes and promote said tropes, regardless of the wearer’s intentions.
It can become particularly evident during Halloween, a holiday in which one of the primary activities is precisely dressing up in costumes. That is where the issue at hand lies — a person’s race, ethnicity and culture are not “costumes” and should not continue to be perceived as such. Though costumes traditionally involve supernatural figures (and still commonly do), the assortment has evolved and can now range from popular fiction characters to costumes exhibiting a pun. In retrospect, this is great considering the creativity that it has encouraged and continues to encourage, but it’s also where a difficult subject matter arises — is it all right to dress up as a person of color when you are not?
The short answer is that blackface, yellowface, brownface and so forth are unacceptable, and while I want to say that dressing up as someone but not donning the blatantly different shade or not changing the shape of your eyes is okay, it really depends. Changing one’s skin color endorses this idea that one can “put on” and “take off” a race, an ethnicity and/or a culture, and the same can be applied via clothing. But, if the costume distinctly mimics the character’s costume and does not make generic assumptions about the culture involved, that is not cultural appropriation. For example, since “Moana” has come out and became the absolute hit that it is, parents have debated ruthlessly whether or not it is alright for non-Polynesian children to dress as Moana. If the costume replicates Moana’s, having aspects distinct to the character such as her necklace is not culturally appropriating Polynesian culture. Imitating Polynesian garb and attempting to recreate its designs may.
However, the conversation of cultural appropriation is nearly not as concise as this. What about the character’s hair — what constitutes accurately depicting the character’s hair or inaccurately generalizing ethnic hair? What about if the costume of the character seemingly promotes a stereotype without any distinctive features to differentiate them? What about this, what about that?
The specifics are muddled and complex, but the general concepts should be straightforward. Do not blatantly adjust features in order to look like a different race. Do not perpetuate negative racial stereotypes. Do not argue that it is the intention that makes for a racist or insensitive costume — unintentional racism does exist. Do not marginalize minority groups. Race in and of itself is not a costume. Ethnicity in and of itself is not a costume. Culture in and of itself is not a costume.
The idea is not to “suck the fun out” of dressing up. This is more a gentle reminder to be cautious in regards to your costume choice, because it is good to be aware. Also, there are still a variety of other unoffensive costumes available this coming up Halloween.
I would like to hope that if anything, take away the concept that cultural appropriation is not okay. Then, form your own opinions in regards to the specifics of it. That is how we get to then have conversations on the matter and collectively develop as a whole. Opinions and thoughts should not be unreasonably concrete nor two-dimensionally compliant; if anything, they should be flexible and open to discussion. At the end of the day, constant discussion and awareness are key.
Attempting to be perfectly politically correct is difficult, especially when taking into consideration how embedded prejudices are in our society as well as how convoluted political correctness is itself. Though the term is generally taken as a pejorative, the notion of avoiding offensive terminology, while arguably idealistic, is something that should still be sought after.