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Costume with care

Irene Ota, diversity coordinator in the College of Social Work, breaks down some of the issues around cultural appropriation and suggests ways we can celebrate Halloween respectfully.

It’s that time of year when much of the Western world agrees to suspend their disbelief for a moment and try on another identity. People buy and wear costumes that help them become something else, even if only for the evening. For some, it’s a time of excitement in imagining a new reality.

And for some others, it’s painful. Costumes that take the form of caricature and adopt aspects of someone’s cultural identity can be belittling. Insensitive. Obtuse.

Irene Ota, diversity coordinator in the College of Social Work, broke down some of the issues around cultural appropriation and suggested ways we can celebrate Halloween more respectfully this year.

Cultural appropriation, she explained, is “to take something from a different culture and use it in a way that the item was never intended to be used, or using it for financial gain.” It’s claiming you fit, or belong with a group that isn’t yours. An example might be claiming that you are Buddhist because you meditate. Buddhism is a complex religious tradition grounded in thousands of years of history. There is a lot more to being Buddhist than engaging in this singular practice.

Closely related to this is cultural co-optation. Ota explained this is the act or process of using something from another culture in a way that is motivated by what is pleasing to you, without considering the cultural significance, historical context and power differentials that are a part of the item or situation. An example might be wearing a Native American headdress because it looks cool. In the American Indian Nations that wear headdresses, they are only worn by those who have earned the privilege to wear them because of how these individuals uphold and embody specific cultural values. Donning a headdress is not a casual performance. It’s a complex communal, religious and political act.

Ota emphasized the importance of considering the colonial history of costumes. “Are you part of the privileged/colonizing group or the colonized/oppressed culture? Those power differentials matter,” she said. The reality of lived oppression and injustice matter in cultural representations. Often there’s a salient irony to cultural costumes. “For people with privileged identities to take on cultural items and identities that they attempted to destroy is ironic. And very problematic.”

There’s a lot of complexity around all of this. What if I am part [fill-in-the-blank]? What if my friend who belongs to [such-and-such] group said they aren’t offended by this? What if I’m trying to celebrate another culture? What if I don’t mean anything by it?

Ota suggested some things to consider when choosing how to engage with another cultural act or artifact:

  • What is my position of power in this situation? Am I part of a colonizing or colonized group?
  • Does this costume perpetuate stereotypes? Does it center on a primitive image of a group of people? Is it based on deficit assumptions?
  • What’s the historical context of this costume? Is there a history here that influences the way others around me might respond to what I’m wearing?
  • Is this something I would choose on an average day? Are there negative aspects to the way of life this costume represents that I wouldn’t want to live with every day?

Ultimately, Ota had the following advice in considering costumes: Do your research. Understand the historical context of what you’re doing. Question whether you’re co-opting or appropriating something that isn’t yours. Check your privilege. And, have fun.