Every October we’re bombarded with images of Native American headdresses, Mexican sombreros, Japanese kimonos, and African American afros being worn by people it was never meant for. Members of minority groups are forced to watch as aspects of their lives, heritage and identity are treated as a joke or used inappropriately. A different culture becomes a costume and Halloween becomes the stomping grounds for cultural appropriation.
Taniesha Kauten, a senior at University of Iowa, defines cultural appropriation as, “someone exploiting another culture by dress or mannerisms, etc. without understanding the significance or choosing to ignore it.” Meaning the key to appropriation relies on how well the person respects the heritage behind these cultural aspects that are not their own.
Tayo Ajose, a junior at the University of Iowa, expressed a similar definition.
“Cultural appropriation is taking an item, a style, an icon, a food, etc. from one culture, discovering it years after its been established, and claiming it as new or innovative without giving due credit,” she said. “Also, this is usually something that is degraded by society in one culture but hailed and praised when someone of a different culture does the exact same thing.”
The definition provided by Ajose touches on a key aspect of cultural appropriation – the idea of benefit. The problem with cultural appropriation is not only that the people who created the custom are being erased, but also the added pain that the person erasing them is getting praised for doing so.
When asked if either of them had seen cultural appropriation take place on the University of Iowa campus, they responded similarly. Kauten said:
“Yes, I have seen cultural appropriation on campus. It was during a tailgate when a white girl was wearing a dashiki and told this other person she only wears it because it's comfy and when she tells Black people they get upset.”
Likewise, Ajose stated:
“It’s everywhere on campus. I see a lot of white people wearing dreads without knowing their cultural importance in the Black community and wearing dashikis without really trying to understand which regions of Africa the prints or the style of dress are from… It seems like a stab in the dark at ‘being cultured’.”
Though both gave an example of white people participating in cultural appropriation, it begs the question, are white people the only ones who can culturally appropriate?
In the article 5 ReasonsWhy People of Color Cannot Appropriate White Culture, writer Rachel Kuo explained how it’s impossible for ‘reverse appropriation’ to exist.
“A group whose culture has been minimized, disenfranchised, and marginalized can’t appropriate from a culture who has the power to demean and disadvantage other cultures,” Kuo wrote. “When other groups adopt behaviors that have been coded as White, or as “normal,” in order to gain wealth, employment, or other benefits, that’s not appropriation — that’s trying to survive.”
Even if Black people are unable to appropriate white culture, what about other minority cultures? For example, many Black UI students have worn a dashiki though they were born in America. Is that cultural appropriation?
In an article featured in the Huffington Post, writer Julia Craven explained that Black Americans are unable to appropriate African culture.
“Black Americans and Africans share a common origin, and our black skin causes us to have similar experiences of racial terror. We all endure anti-blackness and we all deal with the mental stress of it,” Craven wrote. “The fact that most Black Americans do not know our tribes doesn’t make us any less African, just as knowing one’s tribe does not make you immune of the burdens attached to black skin.”
However, just because Black people cannot appropriate African culture this does not mean they have a pass on all other minority cultures. As Fatimah Asghar wrote in her article, Can People of Color Culturally Appropriate? Yes. BUT…, there are ways for Black people to fall into the trap of cultural appropriation.
“We can do this by exoticizing other cultures, and like whiteness, taking while erasing the bodies of others. For example, wearing Indigenous American headdresses because it’s ‘cool’ or ‘pretty’ when we are not Indigenous American (such as Pharrell Williams wearing a headdress),” Asghar wrote. “The erasure of Indigenous American bodies and culture is not figurative, but very literally enacted by the systematic genocide of indigenous people. Even if we (or our people) were not the ones to have orchestrated this systematic genocide, we live on stolen land and might be complicit in their erasure.”
Though it’s logical to argue that white people culturally appropriate more often than people from minority groups do, that does not mean it’s any less harmful when it is done. Ajose touched on this when she talked about a recent music video.
“If I were to walk around wearing a Sari and a Bindi on a daily basis, I think it would be incredibly offensive to the Hindu community. I don't share their faith or their heritage. So last year, when Beyoncé filmed "Hymn for the Weekend" I thought the imagery was blasphemous to the Hindu faith.”
Perhaps the key to eliminating cultural appropriation is to do a little more exchanging, appreciation and acknowledgement and a lot less sifting through and selecting specific elements of cultures that feel disposable after your favorite Halloween festivities.