Halloween came and left again this year as it usually does every other year. Many South Africans innocently participate in the festivities. Most people try to find a costume that is contemporary and clever but there are definitely costume favourites for the event. A Native American, a domestic worker and Samurai Jack walk into a Halloween party…Stop right there. The costumes might seem innocent enough but they can be viewed as offensive to those that share pride in their culture. This particular offense can be summed-up with the words, ‘Culture Appropriation’. That’s a whole lot of word right there. Fancy, but what does it mean? Culture appropriation is when one culture adopts or uses elements of another culture. That is the simple version of the definition but there is a lot more to it.
If you are anything like me, you would consider wearing something like cornrows as a sign of respect for the culture you are borrowing it from. There is a big ‘but’, however, if someone accuses you of culture appropriation, it is not a good thing. The main issue with the adoption or use of elements of another culture lies in the power dynamics of the act. Let’s break it down:
One culture is described as dominant. The other culture is described as less dominant. The less dominant group is the group that has been systematically oppressed throughout history. In Apartheid whites were considered the dominant culture and the rest were considered less dominant. Culture appropriation happens when people from a dominant culture use elements from previously marginalised people(less dominant).
In the past, the oppressed people would assume the culture of the oppressor. Therefore it is wrong to say that indigenous people commit culture appropriation if they start wearing the clothes of a Westerner. Marginalized people don’t have the power that dominant cultures have. Culture appropriation is overall a complicated issue that is rooted in our history.
Most people that are guilty of culture appropriation don’t mean to offend anyone. But just because you don’t mean to hurt anyone doesn’t mean we don’t hurt anyone. It is important to experience different cultures but we need to learn how to appreciate it beyond just how it looks.
When I mentioned the Native American, domestic worker and Samurai Jack, a picture probably popped up in your mind. This picture is an example of a stereotype. Society is filled with stereotypes. Stereotypes encourage prejudice. Culture appropriation encourages racist stereotypes. It is important to challenge these stereotypes if we are to have a more inclusive society.
Take the Native American outfit for instance: when the Europeans took over America, they systematically marginalised Native Americans. By wearing their clothes you are not giving them the proper respect their culture deserves. If you looked deeper into their culture you would know that a chief hat is a holy object. Wearing their holy object at a Halloween party is disrespectful.
The same goes for dressing up as a domestic worker. It is never okay to black face, never. It may seem like innocent fun but you are encouraging a racist stereotype. Most domestic workers have been previously disadvantaged. They are domestic workers not because they want to be but because it is their only choice. Asian cultures are rooted in meaning and most importantly, their traditions. They take their culture seriously and so should you. By dressing up as a samurai for Halloween you are dismissing the serious aspect of their culture. Such a rich culture should be given homage.
Although Halloween has already passed there are of course other situations where you might be required to or compelled to dress-up. What you choose to wear is entirely up to you just keep in mind that with every right come responsibility. Your responsibility here is to ensure that you are not offending a culture, or even worse, diminishing it.
By: Kriszti Bottyan