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Is your costume culturally appropriate? | The Triangle

Is your costume culturally appropriate?

Photograph courtesy of Gordon Griffiths at Geograph

Cultural Appropriation.  

Ah, those dreaded words. Who knew one pair of words could cause so much trouble?

Oh, that’s right. I did.

See, cultural appropriation looks to be a scary political term used to spook people; however, I can’t help but notice that recently, it has become a buzzword  that’s somehow…meaningless. It’s been taunted and demeaned, to the point where it’s not taken seriously, or it’s considered to be the Hail Mary of every activist with a stick up their you-know-whats.

But guess what? As Halloween rolls around, I find it particularly relevant to analyze the relationship between free expression and cultural sensitivity. Some people may argue that focusing so much on political correctness “takes the fun out of everything,” to which I say, “Boo-hoo. Find another costume!” Let’s pause for a moment and think about current events; Disney recently released a Maui costume that sparked a debate (for those of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, this is a character from Moana, who is a Pacific-Islander). Some natives believed that this was an insult to their culture, while others believed it was a fun way for kids to dress up as an adventurous demigod. After consulting its customers, Disney ultimately took the costume off shelves to respect to the Pacific-Islanders.

What we see here is a very thin line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. I think it’s safe to say that when people dress up as members of another community, they’re not exactly appreciating the culture — it’s just convenient or funny (throwing on a poncho and a sombrero is not okay, not matter how quick and easy it is). It’s important to realize, while total freedom of expression would be awesome, as of right now, it’s a utopian idea — ideally, we’d all love to dress however we want without the fear of offending someone or being offended. But what we need to understand is that though we’ve made progress as a nation, and even as a planet, there are social injustices and historical prejudices that simply cannot be erased.

When you put on a sombrero, you’re not just putting on a hat. You’re putting on centuries of history, celebrations and discrimination — there’s a cultural significance there, a responsibility that you can’t just take on for the course of one night. Trying to win your local costume contest isn’t justification for belittling hundreds of years of oppression, violence and racism. Dressing as a member of a separate community isn’t “paying tribute,” it’s quite the opposite. While it’s awesome that America is a multicultural nation, it’s unfortunate that historical precedents prevent us from truly being a “melting pot” (truthfully, we’re really more of a salad).

I know this seems like a fairly negative read, but it’s important to emphasize how significant this is to people out there. I know some people reading this will remember a time (not necessarily during Halloween) that their culture was misunderstood or used for humorous or commercial means. For me, I’ve had my fair share of experience with watching people wear traditional saris for a photoshoot and having absolutely no idea about the significance of the sari, let alone the intricacies of it (such as how the side you drape the sari on varies depending on which region of India you are from). Even henna “tattoos”, which were originally used to adorn brides or celebrate an auspicious occasion, have become all the rage recently.

I’m not saying you can’t have fun during Halloween — it’s a great time to finally do whatever crazy, adventurous look you’ve been dying to try out (and get free candy for doing it!). All I’m saying is be aware of cultural appropriation.