By Katelyn Skye Bennett | Editor-in-chief
Cultural appropriation is a challenging topic because it is highly nuanced and often puts us out of our comfort zones, regardless of our racial or ethnic background. But as Halloween approaches, it’s sure to come up more frequently in conversations around costumes and culture, making it the opportune time to dive deeper into understanding appropriation as a whole.
Yes, Please Define It
To appropriate is to take, to co-opt, to steal. It’s often done unintentionally, because someone sees something “cool” or beautiful and wants it as their own. But this is typically done carelessly, without understanding the meaning behind it, without giving credit to its origins, and without considering what others might feel in response.
Power dynamics are integral here, as appropriation takes from cultures that have been colonized, oppressed, and otherwise marginalized. Even well-intentioned acts may trigger feelings of loss in bystanders: Haven’t you taken enough from us already? Now you want to take our hairstyle or food or commercialize our holidays for your own profit?
White people aren’t the only ones at fault here, and race relations are complex. But it does explain why a person of color relaxing their naturally coily hair or opening a pizza restaurant isn’t appropriating white culture, for example.
Sometimes it can be difficult for those in the dominant culture to understand why wanting to take on something beautiful could cause harm, especially when it hasn’t previously been an issue in their perception. We’ve included some questions below to help you walk through that very question.
“But my other (insert race/ethnicity) friend is okay with it.”
That’s great, but context is key. What one community may accept from you may not be the same outside of that space. For example, in a localized context, you may engage in cultural sharing that includes you participating in a particular culture not your own.
However, when you move out of that space, your actions may be understood very differently — as appropriation rather than appreciation, as co-opting rather than honoring. They may cause harm to those who are from that culture but do not know your heart or former connections. Thus, it may be time to pivot in order to continue honoring those of that particular culture.
There is also a difference between what is acceptable between members of a particular community and among those who are outside of it, similar to how you may be okay poking fun at your sibling but take offense when someone else does the same. Cultural appropriation is similar to that, but with further reaching impact.
Assessing Potential Appropriation
In cases of cultural appropriation, intent is only a small part of what matters. Having one Black friend who thinks your head wraps are beautiful does not mean that other Black people in the grocery store, class, or workplace will embrace your wearing them.
It’s helpful to step back and ask a few initial questions. Is your friend actually okay with it or simply uncomfortable being direct with you? Whether the answer is yes or no, context is still relevant, as they do not speak for their entire race or ethnicity.
Giving credit where it’s due goes a long way, but that doesn’t mean that borrowing from someone’s culture is automatically acceptable, even when granted permission by an insider. Thus, ask yourself the following before stepping out of your house:
- What are the origins of this piece of culture?
- What does this symbol, attire, phrase, or behavior mean to those within that culture?
- What does my taking this on say to those in that culture and demonstrate to those outside that culture? Am I truly honoring others?
- Why do I want to present, wear, say, or do say this? What is my intent?
- How might I be perceived — not because I want to please people, but because I want to be considerate?
- What are the potential consequences of taking this on today, intended and unintended? If I abstain, what are the consequences then, personal or otherwise?
Being well-meaning is not ultimately what leaves an impact. You can do something innocently or out of a good heart, but the reception of that particular symbol, style, type of speech, or behavior is what leaves a larger impact.
This impact is the larger concern for those who are committed to dignifying others. Anti-racism isn’t an easy discipline, but everyone can consider the impact of their actions — even when they think they are innocuous — and learn from past blunders.
Case Study: Australia
Deborah Hoger summarizes, “Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture takes something from another culture that is experiencing oppression.”
At Community Early Learning Australia, she draws this out to show the specific history between colonizers and Indigenous peoples in Australia. She explains that, for example, the misuse of certain symbols disrespects Indigenous culture, and mass commercialization puts Indigenous folks out of work.
Cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are not the same thing, and understanding the difference can be challenging. Hoger is careful to explain the difference within her Australian context and to clarify what helpful allyship might look like.
Implementation: Journal Prompt
Think about a time in your own life when you took something from a culture apart from yours. Did you wear a headdress on Halloween, though you’re not an Indigenous American? Did you get locs or cornrows, though you don’t have afro-textured hair? Did you imitate AAVE to sound “cool,” though you’re not Black?
It may help to journal this or to process with your affinity group. Embrace nuance yet think critically about the situations that come to mind.
Do you know the origins of what you copied? Did you give credit where it was due? Are you familiar with the context and connotations of what you appropriated? How were these respected or disrespected? How did others around you react, and in your best guess, would they have felt safe enough to express any dissent? What does this mean for you moving forward?