Cultural Appropriation; it’s a term that has recently emerged in the 2010’s, but has been an issue for much longer. The Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” For example, when Kim Kardashian West put ‘box braids’ in her hair, a hairstyle created and used within black culture, she was called out for appropriating black culture. Another example would be Katy Perry dressing up as Cleopatra, an iconic Egyption ruler, for her music video for Dark Horse. The reason the appropriation of culture is so problematic is because it’s often done by white individuals. Meaning they’re simply “putting on” an aspect of a minority culture as an accessory. Often, white individuals are praised for their “creativity” and “exotic” looks, but more often than not, appropriation is viewed as just as offensive as something like black face makeup.
The biggest example of cultural appropriation that many of us can relate to, because we’ve most likely all seen it or maybe even done it ourselves, is during Halloween. To this day, people still dress up as Native Americans, Japanese Geisha’s, Buddhist Monks, Stereotypical representations of Mexicans wearing sombreros, etc. Halloween has falsely given people the “permission” to wear other cultures as a costume for the night and return to their normal privileged life the next day.
“Adopting a culture as a costume exemplifies the narrative that white people should educate and civilize foreigners. Costumes that impersonate another race show that anything that differs from that norm is immediately somehow other and worthy of ogling, attracting and fascination. This racist narrative establishes white as the frame of reference for what is normal and what is not normal,” said Yasmin Underwood in her Op-Ed ‘Asian Culture Is Not A Halloween Costume.’
The actual real life harm of wearing someone else’s everyday life as a costume is demeaning and frankly just makes individuals look racist. It’s 2019, social media has made us all more well aware of what practices are deemed as offensive vs. politically correct. However, with our current political climate, and our country in one of the most public divides in years, cultural appropriation and racist offensive behaviour is just as much of an issue now as it was decades ago, it’s just taken a much different, seemingly harmless form.
Appreciation vs. appropriation has also confused many on what’s considered offensive and what isn’t. For instance, dressing up as the Disney Princess Mulan is seen as more appreciative due to the face that you’re dressing up as an actual fictional character, versus the stereotypical image of a culture, according to Underwood. If you were to dress up in stereotypical Chinese makeup and fashion in an attempt to look like you’re a member of that race when you’re not in fact Chinese, is appropriation, and racist.
It’s a tricky grey area, dressing up as a character whose identity if prominent due to their race, versus dressing up as an actual culture. Always ease on the side of caution, Underwood says that if you are going to go to a costume party as Mulan, Princess Tiana, Moana, etc. “distinction should be made between the character and general culture. Culture is a space that many people inhabit every day and cannot and should not fall under fantasy.” A character, on the other hand, does fall under fantasy, as long as you’re not going out of your way to accentuate stereotypes of that characters race, and instead just tastefully dressed up in an outfit that that character is known to wear in the movie, you’re most likely okay.
At the end of the day, none of us can speak for any member of a particular culture/race/ethnicity, unless we are a member of that group ourselves. It’s about creating a dialogue and space for understanding over why something can be deemed as offensive and understanding everyone’s perspective. With the internet being as powerful as it is today, and with new articles being posted everyday titled “Easy and Cheap Halloween Costume Ideas!” it shouldn’t be difficult for anyone to find a tasteful costume that doesn’t appropriate or offend anyone. Worst case, just be a cat, that’s classic.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.