With All Hallows’ Eve drawing near, newsfeeds everywhere have inevitably blown up with talk about racist costumes and those two words every carefree Halloween partygoer who just wants to get drunk hates to see: cultural appropriation.
So what is cultural appropriation, anyways?
In the most simplest sense it can be described as when someone adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own. But there’s a much deeper understanding of cultural appropriation and it refers to the power dynamic between a dominant culture and the group that has been systematically oppressed by the dominant culture.
Why is cultural appropriation bad?
First of all, it perpetuates racism and xenophobia by enabling people to embrace the culture but remain prejudiced against the members of that culture.
An example of this is enjoying authentic Indian food and patronizing Indian owned restaurants, but continuing to hold an attitude that reinforces stereotypes. Another example is how black hairstyles have been mocked and degraded but as soon as a white celebrity or model wears one, all of a sudden it’s “trendy” or “edgy”, or sometimes even “new”.
Secondly, cultural appropriation spreads misinformation about marginalized groups.
Let’s just take a look at Pocahontas, shall we? Pocahontas, otherwise known as Matoaka, was 17 when she was captured by the English and held for ransom. There are some historical discrepancies. She is said to have “converted” to Christianity during her time in captivity, changing her name to Rebecca and then later marrying tobacco planter, John Rolfe. However, Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Nation claimed that Matoaka agreed to marry Rolfe as a condition of her release and it was then that she took the name Rebecca. In any case, it is known that her husband John Rolfe presented her to society as a “civilized savage” in hopes of stimulating investment in Jamestown. She died three years after her marriage. Correlation does not equal causation, but in my opinion that speaks for itself. So the romanticized Disney version of Pocahontas that everyone is familiar with – said to have happened in 1607, when Pocahontas would’ve been 10 – likely never even occurred, as John Smith made no mention of it in his 1608 account and first relates the story of “being saved from execution” 9 years after it supposedly happened.
Thirdly, it trivializes history.
It’s like when the NFL team, the Redskins, tried to defend their name by saying it “honoured Native Americans”. But the term “redskins” comes from the time colonial and government states paid white men to kill Native Americans and bring back their scalps for proof of their “kill”.
I guess I missed the part where that honours Native Americans.
You see, the people defending the name obviously think of a native warrior as a powerful symbol. But the fact remains that the dominant culture they’re a part of has committed horrible crimes against Native Americans and continues to marginalize them.
That’s cultural appropriation.
You may be thinking, “But I actually admire ______ culture and I don’t think dressing up like them for Halloween is offensive at all.”
In our culture there are restricted symbols which can’t be legitimately possessed without earning them, ex. educational degrees, military medals, awards representing achievement, etc., and if they are imitated (like in the case of a medical degree) can face criminal charges. There are also restricted symbols in other cultures that should be likewise respected.
An example of such is the headdress found in various Plains nations, and they are only worn by those who have earned them.
If one admires a culture, it’s reasonable to think they would respectfully learn more about it and in a meaningful way, too. It’s not always evident what is restricted and what isn’t, what with all the misinformation and stereotypes, but it’s okay to ask someone from that culture. If people from that culture tell you something is disrespectful though, dismissing their concerns because you don’t agree with them is not indicative of a genuine desire to learn about a culture one claims to admire.
Now let’s talk about some common costume themes we see out there every year:
Sexy Geisha, Sexy Gypsy, Sexy Señorita, and PocaHottie
I’m all for women expressing their sexuality in whatever way they wish, but I do take issue with the sexualization of minorities and I’ll tell you why:
- It perpetuates the image that Asian women are submissive sexual objects and also perpetuates the consequences of that image – white men actually expect them to be an embodiment of that stereotype.
- Harassment of Roma is well documented and ongoing.
- There’s an epidemic of violence against women in Mexico, with occurrences like “pleasure kidnappings” and women leaving their homes, never to return.
- First Nations women are in much the same situation; only now are we having a proper inquiry to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada.
So as sexy as it sometimes is to pretend to be something that you’re not, perpetuating stereotypes that victimize marginalized women by wearing a costume you can take off at the end of the night is not the best idea. They can’t take off the costume; the stigma stays.
Not to mention authentic traditional dress is so much more beautiful and alluring than the Westernized “sexy” versions, anyways.
Some of you may be wondering if it would be racist for someone to dress up as a “redneck” or “hillbilly”. Short answer, no.
Two rules of thumb keeps it easy this Halloween:
- It’s not racist or cultural appropriation to wear a costume from an extinct or dominant culture.
- It’s not okay to make a costume out of a culture that’s currently being oppressed. That’s kind of like pouring salt in the wound.
Check out Podcast Episode 3 for a lively and diversely opinionated discussion about cultural appropriation between all four cast members. We also introduce some fun new segments!
Also, please feel free to leave a comment. Respectful conversation is encouraged!