By Anna Gulizio and Mya Pfeifer
You may have heard the phrase “my culture is not a costume,” but do you know what it truly means? It’s referring to cultural appropriation, when you take part of another culture and turn it into a costume, which is disrespectful to tradition, heritage, and can even insult sacred practices. It demonstrates a great deal of disrespect towards individual and group identities and transforms someone’s culture into a novelty.
Cultural appropriation is something we see every day, especially in a world of internet influencers. White women defending their braids by saying things like “no one owns a hairstyle” and that they’re wearing it because they think it’s stylish is a slap in the face to people who have been ostracized for the very same quote on quote “stylish” choice. This is not to say that cultural appreciation doesn’t exist, it does. However, there is a very fine line between appreciation and appropriation. A white person attending an Indian wedding and getting Mehndi (henna) tattooed on themself or wearing a saree is entirely different than throwing a “fiesta” party and having everyone show up in sombreros. Malaka Gharib discusses this more thoroughly in an NPR article considering cultural solidarity and the invitation and attempt to partake with a culture rather than mimicking it.
In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo discusses cultural appropriation as the product of a society that “only respects culture cloaked in whiteness.” Meaning, that once white people give it the okay suddenly it’s time to forget about the identity behind the trend and the years of prejudice that came with it. To stray away from cultural appropriation we have to go beyond simply recognizing where it comes from and education. There must actually be respect for another culture, for tradition, and for heritage. If we lived in a society where genuinely we respected one another’s cultures and coexisted, then we wouldn’t have to battle cultural appropriation. Unfortunately, this is not the reality that we live in.
Many examples of cultural appropriation go unnoticed because they’re so normalized, but it’s important to take the steps to recognize when it’s happening because it’s not acceptable. It can be identified in a multitude of ways, some obvious and some less so. Halloween season is when we see some of the most blatant and aggressive forms of appropriation that even cross the line of being just racist, but since it’s a “costume” this is overlooked.
You can spot cultural appropriation when a costume takes a part of another person’s identity and characterizes it. A few examples of this could be gypsies, sugar skulls, or Native Americans. Some ways it might be less obvious is when you’re dressing as a character such as Moana or Pocahontas. While these costumes portray specific characters, they also represent the cultures of those characters and to turn them into costumes is to take away from the lessons to be learned from the characters.
Costumes portraying different cultures are harmful in a variety of ways. For one, they perpetuate racial stereotypes and diminish the richness of the culture they represent. Costumes also tend to trivialize years of oppression and struggle that populations have endured. To be dressing up and romanticizing a time or event that ostracized an entire population of people is to say that you don’t view them as any more than that. I think it’s safe to say that it’s time to stop playing pretend in someone else’s heritage and just stick to being a basic cat or mouse.
Link to NPR article: Cultural Appropriation, A Perennial Issue On Halloween