Halloween is fast approaching, with all of its beloved haunts. In 2017, cultural appropriation shouldn’t be among them.
Defined as "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture,” the concept has only recently entered the American vernacular, but consistently stirs up controversy. It’s unsurprising, given that the ‘melting pot’ metaphor is so historically distinct in the states, but with generational change comes ideological change. The norms that allowed for the sale of a Native American or Hey Amigo costume are no longer tolerated.
With cultural appropriation comes the erasure of the identity behind the culture. Native American costumes and the like condense people into singular images, and often ground them in depictions that are archaic. Distinct groups of people are watered down, wholly summated by sombreros or bindis. They are reduced to characters, on par with Harley Quinn and Batman.
The controversy is most visible when the aspects of a culture taken are celebrated on a person separate from it, but disparaged when in their proper context. Where cornrows are a popularized style on the Alexander McQueen runways, Black students at Malden charter school face detention and suspension when they wear their braids; Kylie Jenner covers Teen Vogue with her hair in dreads but on Zendaya, the style gives the impression that she “smells like patchouli oil or weed.”
Cultural differences often sustain structural inequalities in society, but on Halloween, there is widespread failure to acknowledge them.
Norwegian financial minister Siv Jensen became the subject of criticism on Friday, October 13th, after posting a photo of herself dressed in stereotypical Native American garb. Comments fall in the thousands, the majority of which echo the sentiment that a culture is not a costume. The incident has stayed out of dominant news cycles, and no statement has been procured from Jensen with regards to the backlash she’s received.
The phrase “We’re a culture, not a costume,” derives from a poster campaign conducted by Ohio University, depicting minority students with photos of people dressed as their monetized stereotypes. The result is poignant, especially when captioned “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.”
The idea that cultural appropriation is a liberalist overreaction to what is undoubtedly cultural exchange denies that in exchange, those from whom something is taken are repaid by some means. The ethnic groups and consequent stereotypes off of which Party City profits make no benefit to those ethnic groups. Rather, they nullify the often damaging racial and social dynamics that have impacted those groups over the course of history. They permit people to selectively engage with a culture for one night, without being impacted by the trials that members of that culture endure. They make light of the personhood that cultural groups have been denied.
Halloween is beloved for its fright. Ignorance shouldn’t be the cause for it.