It’s that time of year again where a certain conversation tends to be had more than usual. Some get annoyed, some get confused, and many get defensive. Halloween is right around the corner, so what better time to talk about cultural appropriation? Because yes, it really is a thing.
First and foremost, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page and understand what this term even means. What is cultural appropriation, you ask? Journalist Nadra Kareem Nittle defines it as “the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture.” So stealing. Or what some like to call, “borrowing.” Cultural exchange is different as it revolves around mutual agreement and an invitation to share culture, allowing people who are outside of that culture to gain an appreciation for it in a respectful way. And this doesn’t mean that people outside of a culture can’t ever participate or enjoy the great things that various cultures have to offer, it means that using profitable aspects of other cultures to benefit yourself, just simply isn’t cool. Here are a few things you should know about cultural appropriation.
Down for the culture, but not the cause?
When we think of Black culture, for example, we can think of many things; music, T.V., clothes, hairstyles, Beyoncé (you’re welcome). And many people who aren’t Black tend to engage. But in comparison to the amount of people who participate in all of the wonders that Black culture has to offer, the amount of non-Black folks who actually stand up for Black lives seems to be much lower. The ability to pick and choose what elements of Blackness are “cool” or worth representing is not only troubling and ignorant, but incredibly disrespectful to people who are living in a society where it’s the norm for their own (Black) bodies to be devalued and unprotected.
It’s more than “just” aesthetic
Unfortunately, no, it isn’t “just” a hairstyle or a piece of clothing. Culture has much more to it, and tends to hold historical significance to that particular group. Things like tribal tattoos, hairstyles and traditional cultural clothing are all very important to certain cultural (and often racialized) groups. Dominant groups appropriating culture from marginalized groups also means that they profit from and are credited for what is not theirs.
As a Black woman, growing up in a predominately white area made it difficult to go to school with natural hairstyles without being taunted. So to look on the T.V. screen years later to see it be so effortless for Kylie Jenner and other non-Black celebrities be able to rock cornrows, dreads, and other Black hairstyles and be praised for it, is disheartening. Cultural appropriation lets dominant groups take elements that they like from marginalized groups and deem it as “trendy” , “different” or “new.” So you can probably see why we’d be a little upset.
Assimilation and appropriation are not the same thing
I often hear the argument “but what about women of colour wearing blonde weaves, or certain cultures choosing to wear clothing that is non-traditional and instead wear jeans? Isn’t that appropriating white culture?” And the answer is, no, not quite. Assimilation and appropriation differ in the sense that one is done in order to move through spaces safely and fit in comfortably to your environment, while the other is literally taking something without permission. Most people assimilate to dominant Western culture as a way to protect their safety, and allow them to thrive in this society. Not to mention, some establishments make it even more difficult as they are not willing to work with or accommodate for people who do not fit into this social standard — a standard that is deeply rooted in Whiteness.
No white people, we aren’t “trying to find something else” to be mad about
While many white folks are busy going into defence mode at the sound of cultural appropriation, some often don’t realize that culture isn’t limited to race. Of course, racialized groups tend to be the biggest targets of cultural appropriation due to being racially marginalized, along with the long history behind Black and Brown bodies being used for white consumption and profit. However, there are situations where white people can have certain elements of their culture being appropriated by other cultures.
You can still do Halloween without being racist…I promise
I mean, you do realize your Halloween costume idea isn’t completely ruined due to cultural appropriation unless you planned on it being racist and/or culturally insensitive. I’ve always understood Halloween to be a time where we can dress up as our favourite characters, idols or maybe someone from a profession that we’re interested in. There are plenty of costumes to choose from, and it can absolutely be done without being obnoxious or offensive. Doing things like painting yourself to be a different race, or wearing certain cultural or religious gear as a joke, is completely unnecessary.
When deciding on your costume, remember that groups of people don’t count. You don’t dress up as someone’s race, religion, or culture. Shrek is a costume. Cheetah Girls is a costume (and a really good one, at that.) Wonder Woman is a costume. Aboriginal person is not. To learn more, drop by the Student Justice Centre this Wednesday, October 25, from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. for a workshop on cultural appropriation.
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