November 18, 2017

What Is Cultural Appropriation and What Can We Do About It?

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Every year around this time, the question of what is okay to dress up as and what is not always comes up. Halloween has been characterized by cultural appropriation and the idea of wearing a costume, but what exactly is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation can be defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” By this definition, we see cultural appropriation as downright stealing, taking something from another culture and either claiming it or treating it as a trend or fashion statement. However, maybe we should step back a little and think more critically about the concept of cultural appropriation and how it has evolved throughout history.

It is important to recognize that appropriation does not always have to be ill-intentioned; Janna Thompson, associate professor at La Trobe University suggests that cultural appropriation can incite creativity, foster communication between cultures and lead to appreciation of the different ways people live. However there is a point where you draw the line: wearing a piece or an accessory that has significance in a culture that is not yours. Some other things to think about, especially when considering dressing up for a Halloween party are: am I trying to (mis)represent a culture or a group of people? Is what I am wearing a character or is it a blatant misrepresentation of a person from a particular ethnic group?

Obviously there are grey areas as well because a lot of examples of cultural appropriation are merely from a place of ignorance – for instance, people not knowing that wearing a headdress is offensive because there is simply not enough education about First Nations People in places like North America. They may not consider that wearing a headdress is offensive because they do not know the background information about what a headdress represents in Native culture. Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples is a major issue in politics and social justice, especially in Canadian politics – this is a heavy topic and deserves a post of its own but the underlying point is that Indigenous communities are greatly disadvantaged in relation to the rest of Canada. Often they are a forgotten nation, thought of as being warriors or allies to colonialists in the past rather than situated in the context of extreme poverty in diverse and well developed countries. While the times have changed and colonialists no longer look the same physically, similar acts of discrimination still occur today. Cultural appropriation is contained within these acts of discrimination, it erases the identity of Indigenous peoples and renders them invisible.

At the end of the day it t is important to do research – doing a quick Google search, talking to people of that culture, reading scholarly articles and of course, thinking critically. Doing research, having those difficult conversations and making conscious choices about potentially culturally sensitive pieces. No one is expected to be perfect, that is far too much to ask for. What we can hope is that we are able to learn from others and educate ourselves.


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