Halloween: avoiding cultural appropriation

Students, faculty discuss how cultural appropriation hurts marginalized communities.

Synthetic dreadlocks sprouting from a flimsily-made wig, colorful assortments of sombreros, rhinestones strung from chains on foreheads — these are just some of the culturally appropriated costumes taken from marginalized groups during Halloween.  

Some students from these groups defined cultural appropriation as a conscious, false or disrespectful portrayal of a culture other than one’s own. They feel hurt or mocked when they see others imitating their cultures at parties or on Halloween.

Raquel Pérez, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the Department of Sociology, said when outsiders in positions of power culturally appropriate these lost identities, they take ownership of a culture that was not permitted to own itself. 

“When those things are then borrowed by the people who have told you, ‘You can’t use this, but we can,’ that really becomes the core of where the offense is,” Pérez said.

Ari Gutierrez-Sanchez, a junior secondary English education major, is of Mexican descent. Gutierrez-Sanchez said it was painful to see a non-Mexican male student wearing a sombrero this month.

“He can take off my culture, and I can’t,” Gutierrez-Sanchez said. 

They were born on Cinco de Mayo,  which celebrates Mexico’s military victory over the French in 1862, and they often see people appropriating their culture on that holiday.

“I really didn’t get to savor my birthday very much because people were making jokes about it all the time [because of] this idea I’m this Mexican person born on Cinco de Mayo,” they added.

Sadé Williams, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology, said people outside marginalized groups can remove their costume at the end of the night, but people who have faced oppression cannot remove their culture. 

“Not everybody gets to take off a costume, and not everyone gets to put one on,” she added.

Williams said fundamental genetics like hair texture or skin color can bar Black people from corporate success. Hairstyles are not protected under anti-discrimination laws. It is legal to fire a Black man or woman because of dreadlocks or other hairstyles.

Williams added that when celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Kim and Khloe Kardashian appropriate Black hairstyles, they draw attention to Black culture for the wrong reasons. 

“That presentation is respected more than actual Black women,” Williams said. “That’s the issue. Now we can wear cornrows because Kim and Kylie do it, right? No. It’s actually appropriation. We should never fire people for wearing cornrows.”

Aaron Smith, an African American Studies and Africology professor whose research focuses on how African people were stripped of their cultures during the Transatlantic slave trade, said recognizing cultural appropriation is “not rocket science.”

“If that’s your only interaction with the culture, then that’s a pretty telltale sign that you’re potentially on the road toward appropriation,” he said.  

Tara Ticconi, a sophomore political science major, said she planned on dressing up as a G–sy, a slur used to describe the Roma people, for Halloween before she learned more about cultural appropriation. The slur was first imposed on the Roma by Europeans who believed they originated from Egypt due to their dark physical features. Roma, who are Europe’s largest ethnic minority group, originate from northwest India.

Ticconi first saw that these costumes were considered cultural appropriations in a Twitter thread.

“I was confused when it said you shouldn’t dress like a G–sy,” Ticconi said. “I Googled it and read about how the Romani population in Europe is really ostracized and persecuted by the government. You don’t really think of it as a bad word because there are so many TV shows, songs and shirts with the word ‘G–sy’ in it, but it is.”

Romani have experienced severe persecution, including more than 500 years of slavery, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. Despite this, there are more than 2,000 results on Amazon for “g–sy costume,” many of which will be purchased by people who do not know about this history.

To be more aware of cultural appropriation, Williams said the first step is recognizing when people use another person’s culture for gain in their lives. 

“Checking ourselves, checking some of the behaviors that we might be doing to contribute to systems of oppression, and then checking the people who we directly surround ourselves with and identifying it…” Williams said. “If everybody did that, that would probably be half the battle.”

Alexis Rogers, Kate Newdeck, Emma Goldhaber and Claire Wolters contributed reporting. 

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