Dreading Halloween: Creating a Dialogue about Cultural Appropriation

 Photographed by Kevin Tachman during Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2017 collection show at New York Fashion Week in September 2016.

Photographed by Kevin Tachman during Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2017 collection show at New York Fashion Week in September 2016.

What do you all think about Halloween? How has your outlook on the ghoulish night changed as you’ve grown older?

I’ve always loved the holiday. It was fun driving past the inflatable pumpkins in my neighbors’ yards or seeing what creative costumes my classmates came up with. Even now, I still enjoy Halloween. But, each year I wonder what ridiculous and insensitive costumes I’ll see on my social media feeds.

It doesn’t even have to be Halloween for traditional and significant aspects belonging to a specific culture to be appropriated. We see it everyday. But Halloween brings cultural appropriation to new heights.

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the theft of customs, symbols and/or traditional garb from one culture by another culture, ignoring the significance of these culture-specific practices. Most definitions of cultural appropriation mention that the appropriators have some historical dominance over the subjected culture. However, as I will discuss later, this is not always the case.

Cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are not synonymous. Appreciation stimulates meaningful and thoughtful discussion between people about a culture’s traditions. Appropriation bypasses inquiry and education through discourse. While there can be some gray area about what constitutes appropriation and appreciation, in most examples of appropriation we see, the line is clear.

Who does the appropriating?

Frequently, we read stories about white students doing black face at college Halloween parties. Students connote certain lifestyles to specific races of people. For example, partygoers feel required to paint their skin darker so it is clear that they’re a rapper. They begin dropping the “g’s” off the end of their words and adopting new slang for the night. Even these three friends managed to be the Migos without appropriating them.

We hear less about people of color who appropriate other cultures. When a black woman sports a Native American feather headdress and fake suede dress, it isn’t a problem. As of late, this image has generated a conversation about people of color appropriating one another.

Who has the authority to speak out against appropriation?

In short, it is all of our responsibility to speak up about instances of cultural appropriation. It may seem hard to speak up for a culture you don’t belong to, but, if it’s obvious someone is being disrespectful to another culture, then you should say something.

Now, standing up to cultural appropriation doesn’t have to mean dragging them or pulling up to their place of work. You don’t have to be disrespectful because all that does is discourage constructive conversation. It can be as simple as pulling them to the side or sending them a direct message on whatever social media platform.

What do UMD students of color have to say about cultural appropriation?

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, the University of Maryland College Park chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (UMCP NAACP) held a general body meeting titled “Culture Vulture” about cultural appropriation. The discussion was quite timely in respect to the Halloween season, but also because it occurred during the chapter’s Student Activist Awareness Week.

“A lot of people, when they think of activism, think of holding a bullhorn and going out to protest. But this whole week was about taking into consideration there are different ways to be an activist. And for this day in particular, just being culturally aware of how you affect others and educating yourself is being active,” said Alexis Ojeda-Brown, senior English and history double major.

UMCP NAACP informed students on what cultural appropriation was, intent versus impact, and gave a plethora of examples. What made this conversation especially important was the fact that it focused primarily upon the cultural missteps by other people of color, a topic often neglected.

One such example was the ‘sweet and sour’ tweet I previously mentioned. Some students felt that there was nothing wrong with the costume and that it was the caption (“Sweet & sour sauce anyone?”) alongside an Asian emoji creating the problem. Other students agreed with the folks on Twitter who said the outfit represented the hypersexualization of Asian women.

“That [the costume] is not the original way that this was made, I can imagine. She’s sexualized the outfit, which is what happens, a lot of the time, to other cultures. And then for her to just say ‘sweet and sour sauce,’ I just think that is ignorant in so many ways and lights the fire,” said Aysia Morton, a senior government and politics and communications double major.

Another issue sparking dialogue was about children and Halloween costumes. On one hand, it can be considered the responsibility of the parent to make their child aware of cultural misrepresentation or simplification on television. But on the other hand, how do you explain to a four-year-old that being Pocahontas is culturally insensitive?

Other students agree with me that stopping cultural appropriation begins with all of us. “If a black person is appropriating Latino culture, I feel like it is the responsibility of the black community to tell their member, ‘You’re appropriating and that’s not okay. Because it if it was the flipside you wouldn’t like them appropriating us,’” said Isha Kamara, a junior communications major.

While I do believe cultural appropriation, especially by other people of color, can sometimes be a hard topic to discuss, we must be willing to confront these complex issues head on.

 Twitter user @been_801 doesn’t represent the entire Polynesian race. So while his opinion makes the conversation easier to have, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the consistently inaccurate portrayals of characters of color by Disney.

Twitter user @been_801 doesn’t represent the entire Polynesian race. So while his opinion makes the conversation easier to have, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the consistently inaccurate portrayals of characters of color by Disney.