Halloween is probably one of my favorite holidays; I’m basically a professional dresser-upper. Costumes are the best, especially when you get to pretend, for at least one night, that you’re someone completely different. As a cisgender, white female, though, I need to be particularly careful when choosing my costume. Just because my race has been the superior one for hundreds–thousands–of years, doesn’t mean that I have the right to take other people’s cultures and pretend to be a part of it…when I’m not.
Culture is what defines each individual society. Life-long rituals and beliefs that have been held for thousands of years are rooted within a people’s culture. New cultures and ways of living are also beginning to emerge, representing, for the first time, minority groups that are no longer considered part of the “norm.” This is why it’s significantly important to take other people’s beliefs and cultural practices into consideration when choosing whether or not we wear items of clothing, body art or costumes that are symbolic figures within a culture.
We need to be careful.
“Culture appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon.” -Wikipedia
Halloween costumes may seem harmless to most of us that share the same culture filled with Christian, first-world beliefs; however, these outfits can be very offensive to the people that take pride in their way of living. To some people, religion is the backbone of life. To other people, their culture (or their ancestor’s culture) is their reason for living.
Take a Native-American Headdress, for example. Modern culture has fashioned these into mainstream wear. The problem with just throwing on a headdress, though, is that people are not aware of their cultural importance. Headdresses were a huge representation of bravery. Feathers were earned; most headdresses weren’t completed in one sitting since feathers were continually added to them as warriors showed commendable acts of bravery. The more the feathers, the braver the individual. This is why we usually associate a chief of a tribe with a headdress–he was the most honorable figure of the tribe.
MTV even had something to say regarding the appropriation of headdresses. After Pharell Williams received backlash from wearing a headdress on the cover of Elle UK, there were some things said that raised an issue regarding his choice. Jacqueline Keeler, founder of the Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry (EONM), noted,
“As wearing a headdress reinforces stereotypes about Native people and appropriates our culture with little or no regard for our traditions, I think it is egregious and contributes to the dehumanization of our people.”
Appropriations of American Indians doesn’t just end at Halloween costumes and Coachella fashion choices, though. People are beginning to also question whether or not having an “Indian” as a mascot is okay. Before one considers presenting a counterargument to this, they should take into consideration the fact that we, as white settlers, massacred hundreds of thousands
of Native Americans in order to “settle” in North America. Killing innocent inhabitants was only the beginning for us, though, as we continued to assimilate them to our own culture and even went as far to snatch the “last living Indian” and put him on display in a San Francisco museum. It’s when we take a serious look back at our treatment of Native Americans and realize the situation in which they live today, that we need to realize that wearing a headdress, or simply “pretending” to be one for Halloween is not acceptable.
Though we commonly associate Native Americans with modern-day culture appropriation, there are other people that we need to take into consideration as well. The Bindi, for instance, has become a widely popular accessory for celebrities. From Selena Gomez to Vanessa Hudgens to Gwen Stefani, women have found it increasingly attractive to wear a variety of Bindi when making appearances or giving performances. What many of these women do not take into consideration, however, is the religious and spiritual significance of this symbol in Hindu culture. Meaning to represent the third eye, it’s believed to be the concept of respecting wisdom and spiritual growth. Not to mention, the Bindi also
represents a woman’s marital status. The use of a Bindi dates back Before Christ, so it’s significance to those who wear it for religious purposes needs to be respected. The rise of popularity among every-day women has been brought to attention by a blogger, Isha Aran:
“The issue that so many people have with the recent bindi summer festival trend is that it doesn’t take from Hindu culture on Hindu culture’s terms. It takes from Hindu culture on American terms and negates the Hindu aspect through ignorance and exoticism of an ‘alluring foreign culture.'”
Aran’s point is eye-opening. We aren’t taking these symbols of a culture in order to educate others around us or embrace a certain society’s way of life. We’re wearing these things to be fashionable.
There are other various Asian appropriations that we need to take into consideration as well. The most common types of appropriations seen in this instance are the wearing of a kimono and the impersonation of geishas. Kimonos, though seen as a cute dress by many, actually holds a significant religious context, such as when a baby is first born and taken to a Shinto shrine, weddings and funerals. Compared to our view on Confirmation and wedding dresses, kimonos are very similar. So why are we wearing them as a fashion statement? You wouldn’t show up to your school wearing a fluffy, white, over-the-top wedding dress, would you?
Geishas are highly respected in Asian countries, such as Japan. Seen as “the ultimate artist and hostess,” geishas train for years before they are graciously given a title. Geishas are perceived as the perfect woman. In Western culture, however, geishas are over sexualized. Many women turn to the geisha look for the ideal “Asian look.” Katy Perry was the most recent pop star to go
all-out, though she isn’t the only one. Other pop singers, such as Avril Lavigne, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Beyoncé and Britney Spears have also gone as far to appropriate Asian culture. These geisha “looks” usually consist of kimonos, bamboo umbrellas and the practice of being “yellowfaced,” AKA putting on an excessive amount of makeup, usually in order to appear as Asian as possible. This was something seen typically in movies and films from the middle of the twentieth century when many Asian-Americans were discriminated against and refused jobs in the movie industry. Probably the most famous and best-known example would be Mickey Rooney’s impersonation in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. These interpretations popularly portrayed Asians as annoying, stupid, ugly or loud.
I was even more appalled when I Googled “Asian halloween costumes” and found extremely over sexualized images. Knowing how we heavily mistreated Asian-Americans during the twentieth century (hell, we put them into internment camps) and how Asians are still commonly made fun of today (i.e. when I was in elementary/middle school many kids would find it funny and entertaining to pull at the skin towards the outer-part of their eyes–to get a “squinted” appearance–and proceed to make jokes), I was amazed at just how sexualized and ridiculous these costumes were. If our culture still continues to make fun of those who are different from us, we don’t need to be dressing up as a culture of people that are still regarded as “weird”, “strange” or “different.”
Okay, I know this has been long, and if you’ve stuck with me until this final paragraph, then I would like to thank you. Culture appropriation isn’t nearly as publicized as it needs to be. The problem with simply “dressing up” and representing a culture stems from the lack of knowledge about that culture. It is important that we, as individuals and–eventually–as a society, inform ourselves on cultures different than ours, especially before portraying that culture. We also need to take a look back on our society’s relations with these different cultures. The matter of the fact is, white cultures reign supreme in our world, and when we decide to integrate other people’s cultural aspects into our fashion or daily lives without researching further into their importance, we lack a certain knowledge and respectability that we need to acquire. Just like most of us don’t like to see an up-side-down cross being worn fashionably, most other cultures don’t want to see us wearing their symbols fashionably either.
Image Courtesy of: laurenevansillustration.wordpress.com