Halloween and Cultural Appropriation: How far is too far, or not far enough?

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It’s October 29th, and I’m sure a lot of you have, or have yet to decide on a costume(s). And, if you’ve walked into the UCC in the past week, or if you frequent Buzzfeed, I’m sure you’ve heard all about Halloween trick-or-treaters’ tendencies to use Halloween costumes that demonstrate “cultural appropriation”. Now, the most common examples of this violation of cultural costume are Geisha makeup, Mexican sombreros and mustaches, traditional (or imitation) Indigenous garb, Jamaican dreadlock hats—even Ninja costumes have been singled out as culturally offensive.

While I agree that costumes that parody an ethnic, religious or cultural group are indisputably politically incorrect and offensive, I feel it is a bit simplistic and an avoidance of the true issue at hand to simply conclude with “don’t appropriate other cultures” and then call it a day.

To delve into more depth, let’s nail down the actual definition of “appropriation”. Oxford dictionary defines it as “the making of a thing private property, whether another’s or (as now commonly) one’s own; taking as one’s own or to one’s own use; concr. the thing so appropriated or taken possession of.” and “the assignment of anything to a special purpose”.

But wait, isn’t the purpose of Halloween to appropriate a piece of clothing to the purpose of being something you normally aren’t? And dressing up as something doesn’t make it “commonly” now theirs, does it? Halloween is just one day. What other day of the year can a little kid be the beautiful Princess Jasmine or Mulan?

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Perhaps the answer lies with the more specific definition of “cultural appropriation”: “a term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.”

The notion of Halloween costumes and “cultural appropriation” then likely originates with colonizers, who would enter and exploit a colony, taking their resources, cuisine and fabrics. In the case of the Indigenous for example, food and utilities were taken over by the “explorers” since they served practical uses of which the colonials could take advantage; other resources such as water, animals and medicinal herbs were also taken over, drained and “appropriated” for the conquerors’ purposes. Along with these resources, the colonizers took up native objects of fashion such as snowshoes and moccasins and furs as they had genuine utile in the coldness of the North. After time when the spoils were sent to the motherland, the fashions and foods of the colonized lands were ”appropriated” into decorative fashion statements to be sported by the elite of Europe—furs worn fur-side up as symbols of conquest rather than sources of necessary warmth—or feathered headbands worn by European children when they play-acted “cowboys and Indians”.

But cultural appropriation was never just a one way street: the Encyclopedia of Clothing and fashion writes, “Indigenous persons of high rank, the new elite, and men were among the first to incorporate items of Western clothing into their wardrobes. Because the suit was a hallmark of colonial authority, jackets and trousers signified status, education, and colonial employment. In India, some men who adopted Western fabrics retained Indian dress styles while others had Indian garments tailored to take on a European look. New combination garments consisted of both Indian and European clothes— for example, shoes and trousers worn with coats in local styles and distinctive hats, a Western-style jacket on top of locally styled trousers or a sarong. In parts of Africa, highly decorated military uniforms were worn by kings and paramount chiefs on special occasions in combination with other styles of dress and accessories such as animal skins. The big robes, boubous, worn by Muslim men in West Africa, were not widely abandoned in favor of Western suits and are today worn with pride as evidence of a different dress aesthetic than the strong linear form of the Western suit.”

Either way, it seems that in the past taking on another culture’s art or practices has resulted from the cultural exploitation of a subjugated colony.   To a modern little boy, however, a ninja isn’t a cultural caricature to be ridiculed to show cultural dominance (and if it is, the fault lies with his parents)—he hasn’t colonized Japan and is wearing the stolen spoils of his conquest. No—to this kid, the ninja is held up on a pedestal as a mythical figure—a hero, alongside Buzz Lightyear and Captain America. Is he appropriating a culture for parodic purposes when he pays respect to the agility and awesomeness of these trained warriors?

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And what about a ballerina? No one bats an eye when little girls run around all night dressed as one, and yet the media was up in arms at the sight of Kendall Jenner dressed as a ballerina for her magazine photoshoot, accusing her of “appropriating ballet culture” because “she’s not a real ballerina”, and hasn’t trained like one. So what makes the little girl’s “appropriation” of the ballerina costume okay, but not Kendall’s?

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My answer isn’t about culture: it’s intention. Most ballerinas are likely aware that the little girls dress up as ballerinas with innocent reverence, while Kendall, who is already affluent and has no intention of training as a ballerina, almost seems to say “I am rich enough to be whatever I want”. Thus, it seems that using a cultural costume for any purpose other than to respect it is the root of the cultural appropriation issue.

To those who are personally offended when someone assumes any visible element of their culture on Halloween or any other day of the year—even in dressing as a specific fictional character—I recognize that I am walking on dangerous ground here, and while I don’t disrespect anyone’s feelings or culture, all I’m trying to say is that not every sharing of another culture is disrespecting that culture or at least, intentionally does so. While some cultural elements may always be inappropriate for dress-up (i.e. blackface and probably religious attire), there can be added value to allowing people to experience the splendor of another culture, without it being the outcome of a colonial conquest. We see versions of what some people might call cultural appropriation everywhere we turn, even if we don’t want to admit it: tons of white people use chopsticks and have become very skilled at it; in fact, it is almost necessary to eat sushi, another food “appropriated” by countries all around the world; conversely, many people from all over also speak English as well as many foreign languages to which they have no cultural ties; Many Asian beauty parlors offer stickers that are meant to hold back the upper eyelid and affect the Caucasian “double eyelid” look, and people of different cultures wear artificial hair pieces (or weaves) of colours and textures resembling hairstyles they cannot naturally replicate; All of these are examples of humanity taking part in elements of other cultures, yes, but I wouldn’t call this appropriation “malicious” or even offensive. People do not always “dominate” another culture when they wear it and make it “theirs”; often, people simply want to experience or *try on* the parts they appreciate.

So what does it all mean? Should we still ban all cultural costumes so we don’t offend anyone on Halloween?

For now, yes. Because many cultural related costumes in the distant and not-so-distant past have been both objectively and deliberately offensive, a full pendulum swing in the opposite direction—that of frowning upon any and all cultural costumes—was inevitable, and even understandable. Even if certain costumes are not offensive, and do not stereotype or parody an entire people, we cannot stop the disrespectful minority from ruining it for the rest of us who respectfully want to understand and appreciate the beauty of other cultures.

All we can ever do is respect each other’s feelings, and try not to step on anybody’s toes. Today, all cultural-related costumes trigger offensive memory and connotation; Tomorrow, who knows? I, for one, hope one that someday, certain cultural garbs will no longer be off-limits, Halloween or not. Because I, for one, would absolutely love to try on a Kimono before I die.

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