How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation Mistakes This Halloween

Samantha Vincenty
·12 mins read
Photo credit: Silver Screen Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Silver Screen Collection - Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

Examples of cultural appropriation are everywhere you look in pop culture, fashion, and even food. The "is it appropriation, or appreciation?" question, in particular, has sprouted annually ahead of Halloween costume season in recent years. Yet there's no true consensus on the definition of cultural appropriation and how serious of an offense it is—nor on who gets to act as judge and juror when it comes to the latter.

While the term itself is decades old, it became more widely known in 2013. "The idea of cultural appropriation certainly started to hit the mainstream with Miley Cyrus and twerking," says Erika Niwa, assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College, who has studied how culture impacts ethnic and racial identity. Cyrus sparked a tidal wave of online conversation over the fact that she'd lifted, without credit, her dance style from the Black bounce music scene in New Orleans—a culture that millions of her fans had never heard of—for her own great commercial and financial reward.

The debate resurfaced often over that following year, as Cyrus's pop music peer Katy Perry took flak for appropriation gaffes that included performing in Japanese geisha garb, donning cornrow braids with gelled-down baby hair while singing about "getting our nails did all Japanese-y" in her "This Is How We Do" video, and dressing like an Egyptian Queen in the clip for "Dark Horse," which also drew accusations of anti-Muslim blasphemy for a since-deleted scene. Few could've predicted then that society was only just at the dawn of an ongoing dialogue, one that now surges anew on social media daily.

Photo credit: YouTube
Photo credit: YouTube

Perry's annoyed response to her controversies at the time reflected how some people still feel today whenever an instance of cultural borrowing is deemed out of pocket: "I guess I'll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that's it," she said in a 2014 Rolling Stone profile, adding, "I can't appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don't know."

The thing is, most people don't 100 percent know what's acceptable and what's not. And there are layers; not every instance of cultural appropriation is worthy of being "canceled" (if such a phenomenon even exists). And as white, female pop stars, Cyrus and Perry were more likely to garner attention for their problematic album promotions—but really, they were just two stars in a broad galaxy of people who participate in complex inter-cultural borrowing. Here's a brief explanation of what cultural appropriation is, why it's so complicated, and a few expert-suggested ways to avoid crossing a line.

First things first: What is cultural appropriation?

"The term cultural appropriation has been defined as 'the taking—from a culture that is not one's own—of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge,' the editors of Borrowed Power, a collection of essays focused on indigenous cultures, wrote back in 1997. The sentences that follow pose questions people still struggle to answer more than 20 years later: "This simple description bristles with uncertainty: What do we mean by 'taking'? What values and concerns are implicated in the process of appropriation? And how, if at all, should we respond?"

Niwa elaborates that those things being "taken," or appropriated as one's own, include "ideas, dress, food, artifacts, history, or spiritual practices—such as yoga, and the language around things like tantric sex." (Though yoga and tantric sex are rooted in ancient Indian traditions, the U.S. culture surrounding the former is so overwhelmingly white that some consider it a form of appropriation. And no, as this article explains, this does not mean you can't practice yoga if you're not of South Asian descent).

In rarer instances, appropriation has entailed borrowing an entire racial identity, as two white women famously did in recent years: Rachel Dolezal, who for years altered her appearance to pose as a Black woman, and Jessica Krug, a white professor who confessed to inventing a false Afro-Latina persona for professional gain.

While widely discussing appropriation may be fairly new, the act itself is not. "The practice of repurposing culture is as old as culture itself, and America has been making other cultures appropriate to its amusement and ambitions since the very beginning," Lauren Michele Jackson writes in White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue ... and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.

Pointing out examples in jazz, hip hop, sports team names like "Redskins" and "Braves," and slang that came from Black and gay subcultures, Jackson writes that to try and keep track would be an exhausting exercise in futility. "Appropriation is everywhere, and is also inevitable," she writes.

If you've noticed that the majority of headline-making visual examples seem to focus on women, you're right. "The conversation primarily centers on women," says Mia Moody-Ramirez, Phd, Professor and Chair of the Baylor University Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media. "Cultural appropriation is often about people 'stealing' things they deem beautiful, or unique. It may be overgeneralizing, but those are more often things traditionally worn by women." Examples include bindis, kimonos, or the Chinese qipao-style dress that incited a deeply thorny debate after Twitter eviscerated a white high school student who wore one to prom.

We see appropriations iterated everywhere across social media—where the lion's share of fiery debate on the topic occurs—though it's not solely white people who borrow. Black pop stars such as Nicki Minaj and Beyonce, for instance, have respectively sparked controversy for lifting from Asian and Indian cultures. "Situations like that are a little more complicated," Niwa says. "Because you're talking about two different cultural groups where the power differential isn't as obvious."

And ultimately, Niwa and Ramirez-Moody agree, determining how problematic a cultural appropriation moment is—and not every instance is worthy of uproar—is all about power. It's important to remember that the give-and-take of cross cultural borrowing doesn't happen on a level playing field. As actress Amandla Stenberg pointed out in a viral 2015 video, many non-Black Americans who heavily borrow from Black culture for clout or career advancement don't always support actual Black Americans in their lived experiences of structural racism and violence at the hands of police.

"What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?" Stenberg says in summary.

"Are you imitating a culture that has a history of oppression, marginalization, exploitation? Are you benefitting from that borrowing?" says Niwa. "And when you're tired, or over it, or it's November 1st, can you take it off? Because there's inherently power and privilege in that."

And now: A few tips on avoiding culturally appropriative Halloween costumes.

First? A simple test.

A few simple gut-checks can help ensure that your, or your child's, Halloween costume won't offend. "I always tell people that the test is: Say you go trick-or-treating. If someone from that culture opens the door, will they be offended by your costume?" Moody-Ramirez says. "If you could say yes, I’d advise you not to wear it.”

Educate yourself on the cultures you're drawing from.

Say your child wants to dress as a specific character they love, such as Moana or Mulan (as opposed to a dicier, vague choice like "little Chinese girl"). There is an opportunity for you both to learn a bit more about that character's culture, while helping to ensure the costume is as respectful as possible. Then, in a way that's age-appropriate, "maybe talk about how appropriate it is to wear the costume," Moody-Ramirez says.

The same goes for adults. If you're applying a bindi and you're not of Indian descent, would you be able to say that you know the traditional meanings behind the symbol? Are you wearing a qipao as a fashion statement, yet remaining silent when you hear anti-Chinese sentiment during the Covid-19 pandemic? Being somewhat informed about the accessory or garment's cultural significance is ideal.

Ask yourself: Are you sexualizing the sacred?

Whether it's picking an outfit for the club or devising a "sexy [fill-in-the-blank]" Halloween costume, Moody-Ramirez says another reason to learn more about the culture or cultural item you're repurposing is so you'll know whether the item is sacred to the community it comes from.

For example, Native American headdresses, or warbonnets, hold deep meanings that vary from tribe to tribe. But feathers were often earned through acts of bravery, and typically worn by elder men. When Karlie Kloss walked the Victoria's Secret catwalk wearing a replica Native American-style headdress, lingerie, and be-fringed high heels in 2012, the corporation had to issue an apology shortly after.

Photo credit: Michael Stewart - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Stewart - Getty Images

"We have gone through the atrocities to survive and ensure our way of life continues," Navajo Nation spokesman Erny Zah told USA Today. "Any mockery, whether it's Halloween, Victoria's Secret — they are spitting on us. They are spitting on our culture, and it's upsetting."

One blanket rule: Blackface is never okay.

It may sound like something that doesn't need to be said by now, but we'll say it just in case: Painting your skin darker is not acceptable in any scenario. Even when intended as an homage to a specific person or character that you love, such as when Julianne Hough dressed as the inmate known as Crazy Eyes in Orange Is the New Black for Halloween in 2013. (Calling it an "unfortunate event," Crazy Eyes portrayer Uzo Aduba accepted Hough's public apology.)

"If dressing up like that person requires you to darken your skin, or wear a wig to change the texture of your hair to represent someone of color, that’s going to be seen as offensive," says Moody-Ramirez. But, she says, that doesn't necessarily mean that every race is prohibited from channeling the spirit of a celebrity or character from another culture—there may be ways to do that respectfully. "If you want to dress as your favorite basketball player, you can still wear that person’s jersey, but you don’t have to darken your face and put on an Afro so that you look like that person."

Not everyone will agree with the latter distinction, of course. There will never be universal agreement among all members of a given race or culture about whether a tribute is okay or not, because everyone's opinion is informed by their individual experiences. Case in point: A 2020 photo of Adele wearing a Jamaican flag bikini top with her hair in Bantu knots—worn to honor Notting Hill Carnival, an English celebration of Jamaican culture—drew an equal mix of anger and defenses from Black Americans, Jamaicans, and Black British citizens who are long familiar with the festival. There is no one right answer to settle on.

Ultimately, it's most important to remember that if you're not a member of the culture that is being borrowed from, you are not best qualified to weigh in on whether an instance of appropriation is or is not offensive. "You can’t really walk in a person from another culture’s shoes, and that’s another reason people get offended," says Moody-Ramirez. For instance, she says, "they might say, 'Well, you’re dressing up like a Black person, but then when you go home, you can take the costume off. Whereas a Black person can never change their skin color, and can’t avoid systemic racism and the other pressures that come with that.'"

Finally, when it comes to cultural appropriation in general: Keep the conversation constructive.

Calling out perceived violations on a case-by-case basis has yet to resolve the conversation, particularly when one's aim is to humiliate, not inform. “In its proliferation, the term cultural appropriation has become charged. Conversations about it are radioactive,” Refinery29’s Connie Wang writes, reflecting on covering a decade’s worth of news on the topic. She goes on to write, “The do-or-die way we talk about cultural appropriation has somehow made it easier to punish those who have the most to learn, and reward those who know just the bare minimum.”

That said, the solution isn't to let exploitative appropriation go unchecked, especially when it's being used to sell something—be it music, clothes, or sponsored Instagram posts. When done well, there's value in difficult conversations that can help us understand each other better. Katy Perry shared her own process of realizing her past "mistakes" in a 2017 interview with activist and Pod Save the People host DeRay Mckesson, including her misappropriation of traditionally-Black hairstyles and her "geisha girl" outfit.

"I listened and I heard, and I didn't know, and I won't ever understand some of those things because of who I am. But I can educate myself, and that's what I'm trying to do along the way," Perry said.

Instead of railing against one musician or reality star and the offscreen creative team they might've dreamed up their look with, it might be more helpful to examine the larger systems that reward celebrities who cherry-pick from another culture for artistic and monetary profit and consider how we all participate in it. (Though on the celebrities' part, hiring a diverse creative team wouldn't hurt.)

And owning up to our participation may require some tough exchanges, but it's important to try to engage with as little defensiveness or rancor as possible—another challenge in what's been called the "callout culture" of the internet.

"The question of appropriation versus appreciation is a question of intent," Niwa says. Online conflicts tend to arise when someone's good intentions make a harmful impact.

"On the one hand, you've got to have the strength of character to be able to hear when you've hurt somebody's feelings, even if you didn't mean to," she continues. "So that we can be better. But if you're not purposely hurting somebody, there has to be some capacity for dialogue. If you are willing to change and grow, then you can change and grow."

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