top of page

October Issue: Culture Not Costume

Cultural Appropriation

By: Allison Clymer

Imitation is not always flattering.

With the Halloween season upon us, the ever-lingering question of whether a costume is offensive presents itself again. So before you head out on the town in your Halloween attire, let’s check-in to see if it could be potentially offensive to one or more groups of people.

First, knowing the difference between cultural appropriation, appreciation and exchange are key in determining if a costume or a similarly-related item could be offensive. According to an article written by the Spring Institute, cultural appreciation, similar to cultural exchange, involves “consent to participate in some culture and both sides mutually benefit and gain an understanding of each other.” Purchasing art from a Navajo designer or a piece of jewelry made by a woman who grew up in Ghana are seen as cultural appreciation and exchange because the act supported and respected the culture’s artists rather than buying imitations of their work at Hobby Lobby.

According to the New York Times, cultural exchange, while similar, involves taking something and giving something back of equal value. Thus, the more someone takes the more they must give back and the quality needs to be positive and of satisfactory quality to allow for no offense to be taken. Appreciation and exchange are all about understanding the impact one’s actions have in relation to what you are doing.

While in contrast, cultural appropriation is, “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not you own, especially without showing that you understand or respect the culture," (HuffPost). As stated in an MTV video, cultural appropriation is a privileged group “misrepresenting and disrespecting marginalized cultures” who usually receive no compensation or credit yet they often had to have dealt with the consequences for decades. Appropriation is similar to the academic dishonesty of not citing sources or plagiarizing someone else’s intellectual property. While there are micro examples of the issue and then there are much larger examples, they stem from stereotypes that the marginalized culture has been stigmatized by throughout history. Appropriation makes styles that have resulted in underrepresented cultures being penalized or marginalized while the person causing the issue is often seen as “trendy” for doing or wearing the exact same thing (MTV).

Some recent pop culture examples of cultural appropriation include Kim Kardashian West’s attempt at naming and copy-writing her new shapewear brand “Kimono” thinking it was just a clever mashup of her name. Yet, this sent people of Japanese heritage into a backlash as she attempted to own the name of one of their traditional garments. After much contentment, the name was changed to the better and unoffensive name “SKIMS.”

While just a few weeks ago, fashion house Dior was called out for their overtly-racist ad campaign and anything involving their new cologne Sauvage, as it played into the stereotypes of Native Americans with Johnny Depp in Arizona surrounded by men in traditional dress and doing war dances. What made the matter worse was that the perfume’s launch party also included people of Caucasian heritage wearing traditional war bonnets as they danced around tepees, and the perfume’s name refers to white settlers view of natives being savages and below them.

One example that is still ongoing is the mascot and name of the NFL team, the Washington Redskins, which is a slur towards people of Native American heritage, and has been a hotbed topic between fans, the owners and the public for many years.

So in 2019, how do we avoid offending other cultures through appropriation? Do your research. A simple Google search or two can help prevent a cultural catastrophe or ask a friend of the culture what they feel. One person giving the okay does not mean that every one of that culture will feel the same way; one person cannot speak for an entire group. Acknowledge the origins of the thought or art, cite your source and do not take credit for something that is not yours.

Culture is not a trend. Never adopt sacred artifacts as an accessory or garment, they are not a new statement piece as they have meaning and honor behind them that results in insult to those persons. That includes rosaries, headdresses and any other piece that has religious or similarly significant ties. Engage with a diverse amount of people. If you really want to learn about other cultures and respect them, become friends with people from different backgrounds than your own.

In the end, if you are still questioning if something is cultural appropriation, do not wear it! It is up to every single person to put an end to the issue, and it can start with you. See someone who is wearing something offensive? Have a conversation with them, let them understand and change their actions from your example. Be an advocate and have a happy Halloween!


Photos by: Macey Drullinger


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page