By: Rachel Stewart
Think back to a few days ago, on All Hallows Eve. Think back to the food, the drinks, the parties, the fun, and most importantly: the costumes. On Halloween, the veil between our world and the spirit world lifts, and monsters come to play. What’s the scariest monster? A vampire, werewolf, goblin, or ghost? The answer to this has been debated for decades, but I have found the answer. The scariest monster is one that doesn’t need Halloween’s permission to enter our world, it enters, and multiplies as it wishes. This monster is one I call “The Cultural Appropriator.” It has many forms and many faces. Look around, there may be one next to you and you don’t even know it. Come to think of it, have you been turned into one of these monsters, without you even realizing it? Read on, and then discern for yourself if you’ve fallen prey to their trap…
Cultural appropriation, simply put, is when one adopts features of another culture as their own, therefore glamorizing it. So, at its base, cultural appropriation is racist and demeaning. An analogy of this, that is truly a grave over-simplification but gets the point across, is if you were to see someone wearing a band t-shirt of your favorite band, but they’ve never actually listened to them, they just liked the shirt design. Halloween costumes are the perfect example of cultural appropriation. Let’s say you think Native American headdresses are beautiful, so you buy one online, and wear it for Halloween. On the surface it may seem like you’re appreciating the culture, because “all you’re doing is respecting the beauty of the headdress.” With that, you would be right: that is all you’re doing. To diminish a sacred piece of a culture, a culture that has been historically oppressed, and colonized, and overall treated terribly, to just “something pretty,” is insulting.
Not only is it rude to not acknowledge the historical context behind that garment, but to think that you have a right to it at all enforces a power dynamic that has yet to be equalized. For centuries, the white race has systematically held power and oppressed other groups: fact. This is why cultural appropriation is different from cultural exchange. Cultural exchange lacks the uneven power balance that must be taken into account with cultural appropriation. The group in power has the ability to pick and choose what they want to adopt from different cultures. The other groups do not, and are forced to assimilate to the dominant group’s culture if they wish to survive sufficiently. Cultural appropriation occurs when someone takes advantage of this power imbalance, and only uses it to propel those with the most power higher. As a result of this, it is less of a personal problem than it may seem: it’s a societal one. It’s a problem of recognizing your privilege, and what you will do with that privilege.
Every time you take something from another culture, and make it your own, you enforce this dangerous power dynamic. Even if you have no bad intentions, and you truly do think you’re just appreciating the culture, you are doing implicit harm. Cultural appropriation has many other negative repercussions, such as perpetuating cultural stereotypes, and spreading falsehoods about marginalized groups. You can still appreciate other cultures and respect them. Just be thoughtful next time you go to use something from a culture that is not yours. Think about what you’re saying about that culture when you present one of the aspects of it in that way. Realize that you have privilege, and you can do something with it. Whether that “something” will be good or bad is up to you.
Cultural appropriation is a tricky topic, and sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between “appropriation” and “appreciation.” For more information I highly recommend this article: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/.