Against Appropriation: Costumes and Cultural Sensitivity

If you are a Berkeley student, you may have seen photos floating around the social media scene which encourage folks at Berkeley to refrain from acts of cultural appropriation as they select their costumes for Halloween.

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Given that Halloween is a week from today, I thought it was important to share my thoughts on why this emphasis on sensitivity is essential, why culturally insensitive costumes can create a negative campus climate, and how you can move #againstappropriation this Halloween!

First, according to the #againstappropriation campaign, “cultural appropriation” refers to the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. Examples of cultural appropriation include:

– apparel/accessories from a culture you do not identify with
– impersonating a member of a cultural group
– “black-face” or other ways of exaggerating the features of a particular identity

Appropriation runs rampant in American culture, and you don’t have to look far to see examples of it in popular music videos, live performances and in social media posts. Recent examples include Katy Perry’s performance as a Geisha, and Chris Brown dressing up as a terrorist for Halloween. 

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For those unfamiliar with the concepts of privilege and power, the idea of cultural appropriation can be confounding. The argument often goes, “If I like this part of someone else’s culture, why can’t I use it/ wear it/ play with it?” Such beliefs are often based in the idea of “post race society,” a fallacy which is centered upon the belief that race and ethnicity are no longer barriers to economic success, social acceptance, etc. There are a number of reasons why such attitudes are problematic, and why utilizing a group’s cultural symbols, dress and customs to make a fashion statement or to appear trendy is not only offensive but dangerous.

1. Cultural appropriation often denies the history of oppression that is associated with a culture’s identity, artifacts and appearance. Dressing in blackface denies the real effects of minstrelsy, an art form based on the exploitation of stereotypes about African American identity; blackface minstrel performances validated claims about black intelligence and helped crystallize systems of injustice that, to this day, still linger in the American consciousness. Wearing a Native American headdress (or rather, a headdress styled after such an ornament) not only suggests a lack of knowledge of Native American customs, but also neglects to address the violence against Native Americans and the systematic elimination of Native Americans and Native American culture from mainstream American society. To participate in such a display is to participate in the erasure of history.

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2. Cultural appropriation neglects the accomplishments of racial, ethnic and cultural minorities. Examples of this are prevalent in the music industry; Elvis appropriating black culture in his musical stylings but failing to give credit to black artists, Katy Perry (again) donning cornrows and utilizing a “blaccent” in “This is How We Do,” or Madonna borrowing Latin American culture for “La Isla Bonita.” These celebrities have profited from these “borrowed” aspects of culture while failing to adequately pay homage to their influences, thus utilizing cultural customs and styles without bringing attention to the accomplishments of minority groups that have been historically ignored and excluded.

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3. At the end of the night, you can take off the costume. Ethnic and racial minorities experience instances of aggression on a daily basis (both on a national level and here at Berkeley), and they cannot escape that antagonism by simply wiping off a mask of makeup or slipping out of their outfit. Their experience as Americans is forever shaped by the color of their skin and by the inferences that people make based on their speaking style and social customs. To deny that truth, and to engage in the perpetuation of those stereotypes by donning a costume for one night, neglects the lived experience of ethnic, racial and cultural minorities in this country. It is a denial of the vast, overwhelming struggle that these peoples face, and it only serves to preserve the prevailing prejudices against those Americans who have to fight every single day for equity and inclusion.

The best advice that I have heard is this: “if you have to question whether or not you are appropriating someone’s culture, then most likely you are, so just pick something else.” I hope that, as students at Berkeley, we can have fun this Halloween without recklessly disregarding the histories, accomplishments and struggles of many Americans, and that we can all just gorge ourselves on candy instead.

Grant Genske is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Media Studies and Mass Communications

For more info on cultural appropriation, check out the #againstappropriation campaign, and some of these articles:
1) http://racerelations.about.com/od/diversitymatters/fl/What-Is-Cultural-Appropriation-and-Why-Is-It-Wrong.htm
2) http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation
3) http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/5-things-white-people-cultural-appropriation
4) http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com/post/781005138/on-reverse-cultural-appropriation
5) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/cultural-appropriation

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