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Addressing appropriation

Kim Kardashian West at the 2018 MTV Movie And TV Awards held at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, USA on June 16, 2018.
ID 119195567 © Starstock | Dreamstime.com

Halloween is right around the corner. Considering the joy that comes with candy and tricks there are still a few things to keep in mind when dressing up.

Arguably the best part of Halloween is putting on a costume. It’s fun and it allows you to be someone else for a day. Unfortunately, America has a toxic tendency when it comes to appropriating other cultures.

So what is cultural appropriation? 

Cultural appropriation is an “inappropriate adoption” of a specific culture, for example, wearing a Native American headdress. It manifests in other areas as well, notably hairstyles, clothing, or using African American Vernacular English terms for clout. 

Steven Vargas, a member of the Equity Board at Annenberg Media, defines appropriative costumes and looks further. 

“[It] can be clothes, appearance, aesthetics, and anything regarding what makes [another culture] who they are,” Vargas said. 

Think Kim Kardashian West wearing braids or Gwen Stefani dressing in traditional South Asian garb. 

As for Halloween specifically, when you see a costume at the store called ‘Mexican Man’ or ‘Eskimo Woman’, it might be best to pause and think before you purchase.

Do I belong to this culture? If the answer is no, then put it back. 

“It’s a phenomenon because people think, ‘Oh it’s a costume, it’s not what I am on the day-to-day,” Vargas said. “But they don’t realize that it is someone else’s day-to-day, and what ends up happening is it becomes a problematic costume.” 

Cultural appropriation centers around insensitivity and ultimately a lack of thoughtfulness. Even though it may seem as if we live in a bubble where these things don’t exist, there are still folks who will put their hair in braids or tan their skin darker to look like a certain character. 

A few days before Halloween, I visited a costume store that sold an “Indian Girl” costume kit. One thing to keep in mind is even if you don’t intend to offend it will still be offensive. 

“People like to push the boundaries a little too much,” Vargas said. “Something that comes to mind this year is the popularity of Squid Game. It’s probably going to be a [popular] costume. What concerns me is how far they’ll take it. If they do makeup to look a certain way that’s where it becomes an issue.” 

There is a multitude of ways to still appreciate and celebrate other cultures that don’t include an appropriation. But when you buy a costume that is representative of another culture, most of the time the money spent is not going to benefit that underrepresented group. 

“One of the big things is that they don’t realize what they’re doing is problematic. There’s a theory in Paulo Freire’s writing, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed,’ about proximity,” Vargas said. “How proximate are these people to these issues?  We don’t realize how problematic costumes are actually offensive or offensive to certain communities.”

Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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