The Reality of Cultural Appropriation


Halloween is a strange time in America, especially if you take a few steps back and examine it close. People of all ages don masks and dress up. The act of dressing up in costumes is traditional, Americans have been doing it for decades. The costumes we wear range from pop culture and icons to sexy costumes and "funny and gag" outfits. We do this to unwind and to have a good time. It's generally not malicious, even the requisite frights are done in the spirit of the season. I want it to be clear that everything is done in a festive spirit. I mention all of this because every year we hear more and more about "cultural appropriation" and how Halloween is the most blatant example.

Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept. It deals with people from one culture taking and reusing items or iconography from another culture. In practical terms this means someone can commit cultural appropriation by wearing an outfit that stereotypes and steals from another person's culture. Think of all the "Mexican Bandito" or "Sexy Native" outfits you see at any given Halloween party. Those are examples of harmful cultural appropriation, most often called cultural misappropriation. There are often positive examples of cultural appropriation though. Things like Tex-Mex and the actual holidays of Halloween and modern day Christmas; people took the original celebrations, the festival of Samhain and the winter solstice in this case, and made them what they are today. It's a double-edged sword is what I'm getting at.

Most of the times when cultural appropriation is discussed it focuses on the negative. There is usually good reason for this. Those sexy or funny stereotypical costumes people wear are actually racist and harmful to a marginalized group of people. This is why I want to start out by focusing on some of the more positive examples of cultural appropriation. Much of what is considered to be “American Culture” is the result of various forms of appropriation. People from all over the world have come to America and they have brought with them their various cultures. Tex-Mex, one of the greatest culinary innovations of our time, is the result of cultural appropriation. Texans near the border loved Mexican food, real authentic Mexican food, and they repurposed it using their own local ingredients and flavors. American holidays are another good example. Holidays like St. Patrick’s Day have morphed and taken on a life of its own because of cultural appropriation. St. Patrick’s Day has transformed from its roots as a Christian holiday to the secular celebration we all know and love. It is as much about Irish iconography and drinking than any particular person.

St. Patrick's Day is actually a great segue into talking about all the baggage and negative aspects of cultural appropriation. The Irish community can easily, and truthfully, say that the holiday is about how the Irish love to drink and that an Americanized leprechaun is the mascot of an entire country. There is nothing realistically “Irish” about the way Americans celebrated. That is the dangerous part of cultural appropriation. The possibility that only the caricature and stereotypes are what survives and are broadcasted. The culture that is being borrowed from could easily be minimized or marginalized by the larger or more dominant culture. Critics of cultural appropriation are concerned that the more dominant culture cherry picks things that they like about another culture. The taker then removes the context from whatever it is they have taken, and does not pay tribute to the original culture.

The fashion world is a big perpetrator of this. Every year, on runways all across the world, there will inevitably be a model who is using a sexualized version of a traditional outfit. Recently there was an uproar over the use of the Indian bindi. Previous years saw controversies about the use of Native American headdresses as props. Musical artists like Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus have also been accused of cultural appropriation. They are accused of adopting aspects of black culture for their own monetary gain. They do nothing to help out and elevate black culture or the problems that plague it. Another layer to this is the fact that the majority of the time the people committing cultural appropriation are white. People like Cyrus and Timberlake take on aspects of black culture, reap the rewards, but then they don’t have to take on the baggage. They get all the benefits but none of the drawbacks such as the racism.

So what can you do? You want to be able to enjoy other cultures, but you don’t want to come across as racist or insensitive. Susan Scafidi, a Fordham University law professor, talks about the 3 S’s "Consider the 3 S's: source, significance (or sacredness), and similarity. Has the source community either tacitly or directly invited you to share this particular bit of its culture, and does the community as a whole have a history of harmful exploitation? What's the cultural significance of the item — is it just an everyday object or image, or is it a religious artifact that requires greater respect? And how similar is the appropriated element to the original — a literal knockoff, or just a nod to a color scheme or silhouette?" This isn’t foolproof of course, you’ll still have to be smart about things. That sexy bandit costume is not going to be a good idea. You should not be afraid of learning about and participating in other cultures. The beauty of America is that we all come from different backgrounds, but we are all living side by side. All you need to keep in mind is to be respectful. Some people will cry and complain about things being too politically correct. It’s good to remember that those who are complaining are usually the ones who are doing the stealing.