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How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

As Halloween fast approaches, the question of ‘cultural appropriation’ rears its ugly head once again. Halloween is notorious for a variety of offensive costumes (remember when Paul Hollywood dressed as a Nazi?), particularly those worn by white people in open mockery of the cultures of people of colour.

 

Let’s start at the very beginning; there is a difference between appropriation and appreciation.

 

Let’s start at the very beginning; there is a difference between appropriation and appreciation. Here is the distinction; if your Indian friend invites you to an Indian wedding, where are you are required to wear traditional ceremonial dress, despite this culture not being your own, that is NOT appropriation. You are being invited to share in an important and traditional aspect of a ceremony and by wearing the appropriate traditional clothes; you respect the culture and the occasion.

However, if you choose to have an ‘Indian-themed’ wedding, or dress in traditional Indian attire for ‘fun’ on Halloween, when you are NOT part of the culture and have no idea of the meaning and implications of the dress, that is appropriation. Cultures are not for you to dissect and choose to dress up in for an ‘aesthetic’ – they are the foundations of the way people in a certain region have lived for hundreds of years.

The same can be said of many other cultures. Halloween sees a plethora of culturally significant dress used as a costume; particularly that of the ‘Native American’ (see Pocahontas), the ‘Mexican’ in a sombrero and a poncho and the ‘Hawaiian’ grass skirt and coconut bra. Not only are these costumes ridiculously stereotypical – it goes without saying that probably no one in either Mexico or Hawaii go around in sombreros and coconut bras; It boils down an entire culture, history and demographic of people to a single costume.

 

It boils down an entire culture, history and demographic of people to a single costume.

 

The Native Americans were massacred by the invading Europeans who took their land for their own – their cultural dress branded them ‘savages’ because it was different from our own, and yet we think that now it’s okay to ‘dress up’ as them for fun?

America has shunned Mexicans for being ‘lazy’, for being ‘parasites’ when they immigrate to the US, but it is considered okay to appropriate Mexican culture for Halloween costumes, parties and restaurants, whilst refusing to experience the real Mexico or share their country with Mexican people.

You cannot try and tell me that cultural appropriation is not real. It is evident everywhere – and not just during Halloween. Young black girls in South Africa are kicked out of school for wearing their hair in traditional black hairstyles (which are not just for aesthetic purposes but help them care for their hair and prevent damage) yet white women can wear dreadlocks down the runway, or to the Met Ball, without any backlash. You cannot pick and choose which parts of a culture please you and throw away or ignore the parts that don’t.

 

You cannot pick and choose which parts of a culture please you and throw away or ignore the parts that don’t.

 

If you want to move away from appropriation to appreciation, learn about the cultural relevance of an item of clothing, or a hairstyle, or a ceremonial accessory, and then DON’T make fun of the people or the culture that it belongs to. It isn’t hard, and it never will be. 

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