A reporter with our student paper here on campus recently invited me to answer some questions about cultural appropriation via email. Here is the article. It's not bad. As is typical, though, very little of what I wrote ended up in the piece so here are my answers in full:
- What does cultural appropriation really mean and how is it connected to Halloween costumes
Cultural appropriation is generally understood to be the way that one group, which is in a more socially powerful position over a second group, coopts cultural elements, like dress or music, from that oppressed or marginalized group. Halloween is a holiday when people are allowed, and even encouraged, to be transgressive. Otherwise "good girls" are allowed to dress sexy; guys are allowed to display their alter egos. It can be a lot of fun for many. Unfortunately, some take it as an excuse to do racism. Dressing up in blackface, for example, is never OK. It has its roots in Jim Crow-era minstrelsy. Short of this, and often without intentional malice, many also take Halloween as an excuse to do cultural appropriation. Dressing up as an Indian (i.e. Native American) Princess, for example, while it may not feel harmful, is an appropriation of a very, very poorly treated ethnic group. Moreover, people never accurately reflect the culture, taking stereotypical shortcuts that conflate varied ethnic identities and portray an inaccurate version of a group that exists only in the mind of the oppressor. Other examples of such costumes include Mexicans, Arabs, Asians, and Gypsies.
- How might students be aware of cultural appropriation on campus this Halloween?
Students can help educate and police each other. Interpersonally, you can explain to your friend why she shouldn't dress up as Pocahontas. Student organizations can sanction members who dress offensively. Fraternities and sororities can refuse to admit people in such costumes to parties and other functions.
- What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange?
Cultural exchange happens on a level playing field; cultural appropriation, by definition, happens between groups with unequal status. In a sense, cultural exchange almost never happens because one group is always effectively exploiting another. This is why something like blackface is never OK, because blacks continue to be more likely to experience measurable, negative outcome (i.e. incarceration, undereducation, lack of wealth, etc.) compared to whites. A black person in whiteface might be weird, but it isn't problematic because blacks do not hold an advantaged position over whites in the United States.
- What effect, if any, does cultural appropriation have on society as a whole?
The important thing to keep in mind is that cultural appropriation is not--or at least not only--about offensiveness. This is a general misunderstanding. People should avoid cultural appropriation because it reflects and perpetuates structural racism. It's easy to dismiss individuals as being thin-skinned or not having a sense of humor about such things, but it is far more difficult to ignore the ways that particular groups of people are disadvantaged. Ignorance of these larger social realities is the truly dangerous thing. How can things get better if those who are advantaged fail to recognize that others are disadvantaged?