Recently, a student self-reported a social media post in which they were wearing blackface. In response, the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement sent all students an email to instruct us to dress in culturally appropriate garb this Halloween season. Overlooking the non-descript email and seemingly improbable events surrounding this self-reporting, our school’s administration is telling us what we can and cannot wear –– all in the name of social justice.
Of course, blackface should not be condoned as it belittles others. However, there is a big difference between mockery of another person and wearing a costume celebrating another culture. Students should feel free to express any culture and have fun this Halloween without fearing accusations of cultural appropriation.
It is important to understand the history of the term. “Cultural appropriation” was first used in the 1980s as a post-colonial examination of Western imperialism. Finding roots in the Marxist idea of class appropriation (the dominant or upper class defining “high culture”), this term seeks to degrade Western accomplishments as acts of colonial terror. Even more, the definition of cultural appropriation takes a sweeping knock at any act that adopts elements of an outside culture, for any reason.
According to politically correct (PC) culture, cultural appropriation is harmful because it hinges on a lack of respect and understanding of the original culture. But blanketing the term “cultural appropriation” on all costumes of a different culture from the wearer destroys the pursuit of understanding. If someone labels a costume as cultural appropriation, regardless of what the wearer intended, the conversation about other cultures dies, and the wearer is told they are wrong for wearing that costume. And it does not stop at costumes. Those who oppose cultural appropriation say anything worn representing a minority culture is considered cultural appropriation.
There seems to be no standard for measuring cultural appropriation. Think about it: If a white person wears a sombrero or a Native American headdress, many will label their actions as racist who is appropriating that culture. PC culture doesn’t ask if the person is wearing the costume to mock another person or culture. Instead, it makes hasty generalizations about the person in costume and his or her intention in wearing it.
Another issue with this term is what is meant by cultural appropriation. Does it include the food we eat? The languages we learn? The music we listen to? Placing limits on what people can wear keeps us from truly understanding other cultures.
Prager University (PragerU), an educational channel popular on YouTube, has gone to college campuses to see what cultural appropriation is and how far removed the idea concept is from reality. In the five-minute videos, a PragerU contributor dresses in the garb of cultures different from his own (Mexican, Native American and Chinese) and asks students what they think of the costume. Overwhelmingly, the students say the costume is “offensive” to or “ignorant” of other cultures.
Then, the host goes to a neighborhood where the culture he is “appropriating” is dominant. There, he is met with welcoming responses. The people of the neighborhood appreciate his enthusiasm for their culture and find no offense at his costume. The people he is “appropriating” recognize that he is engaging in their culture to learn and enjoy.
The label of cultural appropriation does more to divide us than to promote respect and understanding. Often, it takes engaging within a culture to truly realize its impact on history and the contemporary world. So, for Halloween, do not shy away from wearing a certain costume simply because it does not reflect your culture. Your costume does not have to be limited to your culture. Respectfully engage with other cultures and learn what makes us similar.
Lauren Moses is a junior economics and political science major from Coppell, Texas.