Culture Not Costume

Photo courtesy of Jen Mussari
Photo courtesy of Jen Mussari

by Kamya Sud

Staff Reporter

       As Claremont prepares for Halloweekend, every trick and treat planned to the last detail, perhaps the spookiest thing will be cultural appropriation. What kind of ghoul is that, you ask? Well, cultural appropriation is the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards and behavior from one culture by another. How does this have anything to do with Halloween? I’m sure you’ve noticed some of your peers donning feathered headdresses, fringed dresses and other ridiculous appropriations of Native American culture. Seems innocent enough? Think again.

       There is everything wrong with these kind of costumes. Cultural appropriation usually takes place when a dominant culture (such as white America) adopts nuances of a culture that is in some way subordinate in social, political, economic or military status (such as Native American culture). And when white people reduce a rich and complex culture to a gross caricature or costume, culturally significant things are transformed into meaningless pop culture.

       Capitalist society makes this kind of appropriation seem desirable and portray the costume wearer as exotic and edgy. But in reality,  people adopt Native culture without any real understanding of the true significance, marginalizing an already-marginalized culture by treating their traditions as a natural resource prime for extraction. People who usually wear these costumes wear them without any real understanding of why such garb is considered significant and sacred. I’ve seen in person how upsetting such desecration of traditions can be. A native elder named Julia came and spoke to my FYS class about how an eagle feather is only awarded to certain Indians and is considered a symbol of great pride for acts of bravery. But I doubt people with eagle feathers stuck behind their ears this weekend know about any of that.

       Simply put, wearing and appropriating culture that doesn’t belong to you is an exercise in privilege. And it doesn’t end with a few silly Halloween costumes. This phenomenon extends to black culture, where dreads and vernacular and several other nuances are basically stolen by white people in an attempt to “look cool”.

       Personally, I’ve always found it particularly troublesome when I see non-Indians with Hindi words scrawled on their bodies as tattoos, when they display posters of Indian deities above meaningless “Indian” quotes, when I see them asserting their knowledge of yoga in an attempt to “channel their chakras”, when they decorate their palms with sacred henna dye to appear ‘trendy’, all under the pretense of being appreciative.

       But this doesn’t mean that cultural exchange cannot happen, or that we can never engage with other cultures. There must be invitation and consent – an environment of mutual understanding and respect – for it to be an acceptable and enriching exchange. And all you need to do is be open to reexamining the cultural symbols you may be using that could be construed as appropriative, and please, just stay away from those offensive costumes.
Further [really interesting and simply written] reading: http://nativeappropriations.com/2011/10/open-letter-to-the-pocahotties-and-indian-warriors-this-halloween.html

 

Real items seen inside the Halloween store at Montclair Plaza:

Photo courtesy of Kamya Sud
Photo courtesy of Kamya Sud
Photo courtesy of Kamya Sud
Photo courtesy of Kamya Sud
Photo courtesy of Kamya Sud
Photo courtesy of Kamya Sud
Photo courtesy of Kamya Sud

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