Culture is not a Costume

Wire Staff

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As Halloween approaches, people of all ages flock to their local Spirit Halloween or Party City to select their very own costume. While the costume options available are limitless, the reality is that picking what to wear requires some careful consideration. Before picking up a costume emblazoned with the words “Mexican Amigo” or “Sexy Pow Wow Indian,” it’s important to recognize that these seemingly innocent garments are guilty of perpetuating racial stereotypes and exploiting minority cultures, an act commonly known as cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is not simply a buzzword splashed across headlines to incriminate celebrities. Many choose to heave a sigh or roll their eyes when they hear these two words strung together, rather than truly understanding their meaning. It is important to understand that cultural appropriation, at its core, means a dominant culture taking elements of a traditionally oppressed culture and using them outside of an acceptable context. It also doesn’t just mean that someone is offended. Cultural appropriation represents a bigger issue, the heart of which lies in the nature of American society.

The issue dates to as far back as the 1800s, when minstrel shows were at their peak in America. These shows exploited black stereotypes for comedy, imitating their “plantation” speech, mimicking dances and coloring their faces with black paint. This was the birth of “blackface” and, unfortunately, the trend continues to today. In fact, as recently as October 9, a student at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Chicago came under fire for posting a video of themselves in blackface on social media, imploring students to vote for them for president of Black Leaders Union.

The practice of blackface cannot simply be labeled as “offensive” and brushed aside. Its existence alone shows the all-permeating influence of stereotypes born in a time when slavery was normal. Continuing to practice “blackface” and imitate the cultures of other groups only reinforces the systemic racism seen in American society.

A large part of the issue of cultural appropriation lies in the blatant disregard of the culture’s history and tradition. At the music festival Coachella, for example, concert-goers are constantly seen with bindis plastered onto their foreheads as they sway back and forth to music and pose for pictures. Bindis have deep-rooted religious significance in Hinduism, and are not an accessory to add to a costume. They are used in prayer ceremonies, help designate caste and marital status, and express a woman’s level of spirituality; however, the young women wearing them at Coachella will likely never be aware of the historical significance of the “dot” they placed on their foreheads.

Coachella is notorious for its rampant cultural appropriation. In addition to bindis, concert-goers have been known to wear dashikis, imitation war paint, and, most notably, Native American headdresses. Headdresses are not simply headbands with pretty feathers on them. These symbolic head pieces can be worn only by the most influential members of each tribe, and each feather is earned individually with the completion of a brave act. Because of the arduous, spiritually draining process of attaining feathers, wearing a headdress shows that one is worthy of reverence and respect. Dressing as an “Indian warrior” in a costume made of polyester and and faux leather trivializes the elements of Native American culture that have existed since before the United States of America was a country. When taking pieces of other cultures to use as accessories, they become devoid of meaning. Entire cultures become disposable props, available only for the enjoyment of others.

On the other hand, some believe that the act of combating cultural appropriation distracts from larger problems. They hold that the issue of what Halloween costume somebody wears is inconsequential because other injustices exist in the world.

However, it is ignorant to reduce cultural appropriation to an insignificant issue because there are “other, more prominent injustices”. It is comparable to neglecting a rampant drug problem because children are dying in Africa. With that mindset, none of our grievances/issues could ever be solved. Society as a whole would stay stagnant and never progress.

Education is the missing factor when it comes to addressing this issue. If, before choosing a Halloween costume or Coachella outfit, people are aware of the true cultural weight of the clothing they put on, they may be less eager to pick up the aforementioned “Sexy Pow Wow Indian”- a real costume available for purchase this year.

Cultural appropriation has been utilized for hundreds of years as a tool to mock and ridicule minority groups. It cannot simply be brushed aside. So, when it comes to picking out what to wear this Halloween, remember that a culture is not a costume.

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