Why Your Halloween Costume has Serious Cultural Implications
This is an article all about how cultural appropriation is really not ok and people have got to stop doing it. The first step is understanding what exactly cultural appropriation is.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Maisha Johnson of Everyday Feminism adds further that cultural appropriation “refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” This extended definition is important in understanding why cultural appropriation really does not apply to western or white cultures. These cultures have not been oppressed or faced systemic or institutional racism that have lead to them limiting their cultural expressions in any way. What exactly is systemic and institutional racism? Joe Feagin defines it as a complex array of the political-economic power of whites and that the “core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts.” The system is set from the ground up to benefit white, western culture. In the United States, it is the dominant culture.
Because it is the dominant culture, many other cultures have been forced to assimilate, which is reason in itself as to why cultural appropriation does not apply to western and white culture. Cultural assimilation is when a minority group adapts to the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture and customs. In the United States, assimilation has been necessary for many immigrants coming to the country trying to fit in and make a living. Even cultures that were already here, the Native Americans, were forced to assimilate to western and white culture. So when a culture is being forced on you as a way to survive and interact in the world in which you live, it is not cultural appropriation. Those cultures are never in a position of power to culturally appropriate, there is an imbalance of power. Which is not to say that the tables could not flip if a white, western person were to move to somewhere with another culture. If a white American were to move to Japan, they would be expected to take up and respect the customs of the dominant culture where they now live. They would assimilate. It would also now be cultural appreciation.
A big difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is respect and understanding. Cultural appreciation always comes from a place of respect for the other culture and a desire to understand the culture. When someone wears a Native American costume or outfit without understanding the meanings behind the design and the cultural relevance, it is cultural appropriation, not appreciation. A good example of cultural appreciation would be when Lindsay Lohan went to The Refugee Camp in Antep, Turkey to volunteer. While working there she met a woman wearing a headscarf and she told the woman how beautiful her headscarf was. The woman then gave Lohan a headscarf of her own to wear, which Lohan put on because she was invited to do so. Lohan took a picture with the woman and posted it to Instagram, sharing the story of the headscarf in the caption and saying “I wanted to wear it in appreciation for all of the generosity and love I received from everyone at the camp.” In this instance, Lohan was invited by someone from the culture to partake in the culture, and she understood and appreciated the significance of the gesture. She did not wear the headscarf as a fashion piece. She engaged with the culture beyond just a one-dimensional level, as she was there working as a volunteer. This is just one example of cultural appreciation, but I think it highlights a lot of important aspects of the key differences between cultural appreciation and appropriation, especially heading into the examples of cultural appropriation.
Vogue’s March 2017 issue recently faced major backlash for featuring a spread where the very white Karlie Kloss, of Danish and German descent, dressed up in geisha attire and posed in stereotypical Japanese settings. They even gave the blonde Kloss a dark, black wig to wear. The photoshoot not only appropriates Japanese culture, the shoot veers into the territory of yellowface.
Similar to blackface, it is the use of makeup on white people to have them represent East Asians. While the photoshoot does not go quite as far as changing Kloss’s makeup to make her facial features more Asian, it does come pretty close. Which begs the question: why did Vogue not just hire an Asian model? There are plenty out there, who I am sure would be happy to represent their own culture. Instead, Vogue chose a white model to represent Japanese culture in their diversity issue. This example highlights a key problem with cultural appropriation. Several actually. One being that the aesthetics of the culture are beautiful and high fashion for white people, but “too ethnic” for people of color. Vogue could very easily have hired a Japanese model for this photoshoot, but went with their white model to highlight the beauty of this foreign culture. Not only was it stereotypical and culturally appropriative, it also took away a job from a Japanese model, who there are already limited opportunities for.
Karlie Kloss and Vogue are certainly not the first time the fashion industry has participated in cultural appropriation. The fashion industry has had problems with cultural appropriation for a long time now. Another example is the use of “baby hairs” on white models. Baby hairs are “the small wispy hairs” typically found on black people’s hairline that are “very fine and a bit unruly”, as Kara Brown describes them. These hairs have to be styled differently because they are a different texture from the rest of the hair. It is a style which has been used and rocked by the black community for years. Then high fashion models walk the runaway sporting “baby hairs”, giving no credit to the original community which invented the style. Suddenly the look is “high fashion” when strutted on the runway by all white models, when the hairstyle has been criticized and looked down upon when worn by black women. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in cultural appropriation. The group of people who the cultural practice belongs to, in this case black women, are mocked and degraded for their cultural, and then another group, usually white people, perform the same cultural act and are praised for it. This is a harmful cycle and it takes credit away from the people whose culture is being appropriated, which is typically a marginalized group. This is a product of systemic racism and dominant culture.
“Black women influence pop culture so much, but are rarely rewarded for it,’’ said Nicki Minaj in 2015, after her Anaconda video, which broke the Vevo world record for number of views in 24 hours, was not nominated for video of the year at MTV’s Video Music Awards. Instead she won the best “Hip Hop” music video award. Unfortunately, things seem not to have changed much. At the 2017 Grammy awards, Beyoncé’s Lemonade was passed over by Adele’s 25 for album of the year, and instead won for best “Urban Contemporary” album. In both cases, Minaj and Beyoncé were given awards in what is pretty much the black category, with the connotation that their art was good for a black artist, but not good enough for the main title. While these are not acts of cultural appropriation, it shows how black culture exists in a society which will borrow from their culture constantly, never giving them the proper recognition they deserve. It all interacts with each other.
In the same interview, Nicki Minaj did speak against cultural appropriation, calling out Miley Cyrus in particular.
“Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.’’
Minaj hits on another distinction of cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, while also highlighting another negative aspect of cultural appropriation that is not always considered. Which is that while someone might enjoy partaking in part of a culture, in this case black culture, they do not want to ever speak about the hardships the people of that culture go through as a usually marginalized group. While they enjoy twerking or rapping, they’re silent when it comes to joining the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, which was started by a group of black activists after a string of black people were shot by the police. It’s fun to partake in certain aspects of the culture, but at the end of the day the people of the dominant culture do not have to live with the negative aspects of the culture they are borrowing from, which have been imposed by assimilation and institutional racism. If you do not take the time to appreciate the culture and everything it means to be someone who is a part of that culture, both the good and the bad, then it is cultural appropriation.
The key to cultural appropriation and appreciation is respect and listening to the marginalized groups. Read up and educate yourself on another culture before assuming you have any right to perform aspects of their culture. We live in a society where we interact with different cultures every day, and the society comes with many layers of structured racism and complicated dynamics. Everyone is going to make mistakes. The most important thing to do is to always be respectful of other cultures and keep an open mind to learning and listening.