Cultural appropriation is already a problem in fashion and pop culture at large. However, each year on Halloween, people find it acceptable to imitate and ridicule cultural symbols that aren’t theirs.
Cultural appropriation happens when elements from a minority culture are copied by members of the dominant culture and used outside of their original cultural context – “sometimes even against the expressed, stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture,” according to Wikipedia.
The term cultural appropriation is frequently confused with cultural assimilation.
“Cultural assimilation is the process by which a person or a group’s language and/or culture come to resemble those of another group,” according to Wikipedia.
The difference between appropriation and assimilation is privilege and power. In a society where white culture is dominant, anyone who is not white is under massive pressure to adopt various facets of it in order to fit in and/or survive.
Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they’re partaking in. So, why is dressing up as a geisha doll or as “Pocahottie” racist?
Racism is the prejudice and discrimination that reinforces a hierarchy that has been developed on race.
Historically and even today, white people hold the lion’s share of power and resources, and there are a broad range of institutions to maintain this system of white supremacy.
Therefore, racist behavior is one which contributes to preserving and reinforcing this white supremacist status and turning someone’s culture into a trend when the same people of said culture are shamed for it does exactly this.
“Cultural appropriation also adds to this idea of white colonialism in which culture becomes a commodity,” said Liana Weeks, founder of The Youth culture blog.
“Culture thus becomes a part of capitalist ideology in which white people prosper from something that is not even theirs while other cultures are ridiculed for these practices.”
Stereotypical visual shorthands such as “Kung Fool,” “Indian Warrior” or even “Pashtun Papa” are offensive and culturally demeaning.
Recently, rapper Nicki Minaj had a small spat with singer Miley Cyrus in regards to Cyrus’ cultural appropriation and her lack of regard for black women and the issues concerning them.
“Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that,” Minaj told the New York Times in an interview.
Using common depictions of stereotypes support and maintain white standards of beauty and racial fetishization perpetuates the idea that historically marginalized groups exist for people to manipulate for their own benefit or amusement.
There are ways to appreciate another culture by using the thing in question in the correct cultural context (note – not for a costume) and alongside people of the culture who invited you to do so or are okay with you doing it.
For example, Rihanna showed up to this year’s Met Gala in a fur-trimmed robe designed by Guo Pei, a Beijing-based Chinese couturier.
Rihanna’s gown was a brilliant shade of imperial yellow, a shade traditionally reserved for members at the very top of the social hierarchy in ancient Chinese dynasties and remained appropriate for her superstar status.
She carefully navigated what could have been taken as accidental racism but instead, shone a spotlight on where it rightfully belonged – the Chinese design and culture.
Cultural appropriation promotes the idea that the people of color do not control representations of themselves, their ancestors, or their cultures, but rather that Halloween costume companies and their customers control it.
“By wearing our culture as a costume, you solidify the idea that we don’t exist anymore, that we’re a comical or lighthearted memory in U.S. history only existing in Disney films and Halloween stores,” said Tumblr user mackydraws.