We have all seen it before — Native American headdresses, sugar skulls, bindis, elements of Romani dress. Bits and pieces of costumes uprooted from the center of cultures and paraded around during Halloween by those completely disregarding their origins. The history of these cultures is often completely ignored or taken out of context, disparaging and disrespecting the cultural heritage that these pieces have been stolen from.
So what is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation occurs when one culture adopts elements of another culture, usually an oppressed one, including clothing, symbols, art, music, religion, language and social behavior. So why is cultural appropriation such a big deal? It’s funny to dress up as a celebrity or powerful figure, but when dressing up as a culture that may have been oppressed in the past, you are reinforcing power structures that systematically persecute others or using another culture for your own entertainment. As University of Michigan student Courtney Maliszewski put it, “Cultural appropriation belittles another culture in a way that trivializes an entire way of life by turning it into an accessory.” You wear the costume for one night, but the culture that you have stolen from wears the stigma for life.
Diminishing important cultural traditions by turning them into fashion statements, fads or costumes disrespects and discredits the original culture. An article on The Odyssey, a largely opinion-based news website, explains that “[Cultural appropriation] divorces elements of a culture, whether it be their language or their clothing, from their true meaning when they’re treated as fashion statements or otherwise used for anything other than their intended purpose.” From the Day of the Dead costumes during Halloween to wearing bindis for “fashion”, cultural appropriation is everywhere, and it is everyone’s responsibility to rid society of it.
But how do we distinguish between appreciation and appropriation? You must ask yourself two questions: ”What is my relation to the culture I’m referencing?” and “Why am I doing this?” If you’re not a part of the culture you’re attempting to represent, you are probably culturally appropriating.
Each of us is a member of a vast and diverse global community; everything we do has context. We each have a responsibility to be culturally sensitive to combat the widespread problem of cultural indifference. Whether it is painting your face to resemble a sugar skull as a Halloween costume or wearing a Native American headdress at a music festival, this is about more than just insulting another culture. Cultural appropriation is more than just aesthetics, manners or decorum. Cultural appropriation is about the systematic oppression of minorities. It is about denying basic human respect. It is about perpetrating the silencing of minorities. You can appreciate other cultures, try on their clothes, and enjoy their food. But if you don’t take the heritage, religion, or other aspects of their culture seriously and treat it with the same respect you give your own culture, your actions become demeaning and offensive.
An author on The Odyssey writes, “as a member of a dominant culture in my country, I must recognize that satisfying my personal need for self-expression by using another culture’s symbols is an abuse of my privilege.” Cultural appropriation attempts to devalue the cultures and traditions of other groups, and it is everyone’s responsibility to stop it. So this Halloween, think twice about your costume before going out, and dedicate yourself to cultural sensitivity for the benefit and respect of your culture and others’.