Halloween is this weekend and I’m excited for all the festivities that come with it. However, I’m also kind of nervous about what I’ll see across not only our college campus, but the nation as a whole. Halloween is prime time for cultural appropriation. Over the past several years, but especially of late, cultural appropriation has become one of those buzzwords featured on blogs, tweets and the like that many people see but often don’t understand.
If you google cultural appropriation this is what will come up: “Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon”. Nice try Google, but you’re missing a key point.
Cultural appropriation involves a power dynamic as a key part of its definition. It’s not a cultural exchange in which cultures borrow from one another as a form of honoring one another: that requires even footing. It’s an issue of a dominant culture or group adopting or using the culture of a less dominant, usually oppressed culture or group. In other words, the argument that others can appropriate American culture is void because Caucasian American culture is the dominant culture and most Caucasian Americans as perpetuators (actively or passively) of the so-called “system” have not been systematically oppressed.
Cultural appropriation has a lot to do with striping away the experience of a people or group. I remember a couple of years ago when I saw my friend’s mom tweeting about the Washington Redskins and how they needed to change their name. At the time, I didn’t get it. The football team was named after the Native Americans, it was to honor them….right? WRONG. Later, I learned the word was derived from the term to refer to the red skins of dead Native Americans. Someone along the way decided that they should take that horrific moment in history and use it to name a bunch of men running around in sweaty pads playing a sport watched for leisure. By doing so, it lessened the value of the experience that so many Native Americans experienced when white colonialists appeared. In a way, to the oppressor, it was genius. Now when you say “redskins,” people think of the team. How many people can even remember what it meant, other than those for whom it meant the loss of life for their people? It is a constant reminder of their underprivileged place in society. It wasn’t the Native Americans donning red skins jerseys, it was the later generations of the colonialists who coined the name that they would cheer every Sunday, unknowingly disempowering the struggle that so many had faced all in the name of a pig skin.
But wait, you’re just wearing that native American princess/geisha/sexy seniorita/saari costume cause you think it’s cool, not because you’re trying oppress or strip away anyone’s culture. It’s all in the name of fun right? But it isn’t. For most of the costumes that are usually appropriated on Halloween night, those who wore them in their proper context, wore them knowing that by embracing their culture or religion through clothing, language, etc., they would face prejudice, injustice and cruelty. So no you cannot take their pain and turn it into your laughter and thinking you can is just a testament to how privileged you feel. And that privilege, the same privilege that allowed so many religions and ethnic groups to be persecuted along the way, is the same privilege that divides us today. And if we are making any strides toward equality, we need to start with small things like this.