People appropriate culture all the time, whether meaning to or not. People also show appreciation, or are at least trying, to a culture. Every Halloween though, there is a mix of both, and whole lot of debate about whether a costume is cultural appropriation, and who gets to make that call. And the answer, as always, it messy, with plenty of exceptions. Here’s my take:
If it’s not originally your tradition or culture, you might not be the person to decide. Honestly, even if you understand all the history behind the piece of clothing or hair styling you’re wearing, if it’s not technically yours, don’t wear it. Okay, I said it. That’s the sentence that ticks everybody off, doesn’t it? “It’s not yours.” Because that’s messy territory. Who decides who owns what? Some things are obvious, like afros and dreads. Black people have been rocking those for ages (Yet some people still think that white people can own this style too. Let’s be clear: they can’t.). Although they are awful, racist costumes exist. However, deciding to wear a costume that is based on an identity that isn’t yours, especially a racial one, is appropriation. Just because you can buy one doesn’t mean you should.
It varies. One validation from one person of a culture does not speak for a whole group of people. Okay, so by this point, I think appropriation mostly surrounds race (if you disagree, please enlighten me and send me an email; I’d love to hear your thoughts). And even though a lot of racial groups get bunched together under big titles — Asian, Latino, Black, African American, Middle Eastern— no one person from those groups is a spokesperson for their entire racial group. In any circumstance. Especially in this one. If your black friend tells you it’s okay to wear an afro wig for Halloween, that does not mean another black person doesn’t have the right to challenge your choice.
Appropriation is about who is getting the attention, and the kind of attention it is. Many costumes take features that people of color can’t change about themselves, and glorify it. Additionally, the costume of a Native American warrior or Mexican-in-a-poncho-and-sombrero is removable, unlike the actual identity of someone who is Native American or Mexican. The person who is Native American or Mexican faces a lot of oppression for things they can’t change about themselves, where a costume meant to entertain people lasts for one night with very little, if any, backlash.
Appreciation feels different. We all know what appreciation feels like. It feels nice. It feels like sharing. In my case, seeing people on social media partying and dressing up in sombreros in the name of “Mexico’s Independence Day” on Cinco de Mayo, feels wrong for so many reasons. [1. The sombreros. 2. Cinco de Mayo IS NOT Mexico’s Independence Day. 3.A lot of those people discriminate against Latino people and are just looking for a reason to party.] But when my school supports a school wide celebration of Cinco de Mayo as a way to celebrate many Latin American identities, where people are willing to learn how to latin dance, or try new foods, I feel like Mexican culture is being shared and appreciated. Nobody is taking it. Nobody is copying it. We are all just enjoying it.
It’s still hard to spot the difference. Some things are obviously appropriation, like blackface, or dressing up as a Native American warrior. But, in more day-to-day occurrences, it can be harder to tell. A white girl wearing a bracelet that holds importance in the Middle East might look like appropriation, but what if that girl bought it after being really impacted on a trip to the Middle East? Or a friend from the Middle East brought it back for her? That sounds more like appreciation, although you can’t really tell from the surface.
As always, I have no final answer. Rather, a word of advice: If there’s even a flicker of doubt in your mind about your costume, don’t buy it.