How appropriate is cultural appropriation?

 
 

As Halloween approaches, the old debate about the social acceptability of certain costumes is raised once more. Gráinne Loughran looks at the complicated history of cultural appropriation and costumes. 

Cultural misappropriation has hit the headlines recently alongside such well-known names as Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Avril Lavigne, as twerking women from the “hood” and cute Harajuku girls became the backdrop for entertainment across the world. With Halloween approaching fast and Muslim terrorist and Native American costumes hitting the shelves once again, the question of whether cultural appropriation can ever be appropriate has been blasted by websites and blogs determined to propagate cultural dignity rather than allowing costume-party goers to misappropriate other cultures. But as we look around and see Chinese, Italian, American and many more ethnic restaurants being proudly run by those not of their appropriated nationality, salsa, hiphop and Irish dancing taught by many people who haven’t so much as visited the home country of their chosen medium, it is time to wonder whether cultural appropriation hasn’t gone too far or whether it was ever really an issue at all. Halloween has become a time of the year when we dress up as everything from policemen to pirates, ghosts to gardeners- surely there is very little that could either cause offence without intending to or would cross the line of what is appropriate and inappropriate. There is a very definite difference between non-politically correct and racist. But should a line be drawn between the two for Halloween?

Cultural appropriation has been an issue for more than a century, the most well-known case of this being the use of “Blackface” makeup for vaudeville and stage performances in America and elsewhere in the nineteenth century. However it is interesting to note that the practice has not fallen completely out of vogue today in spite of its racist connotations. America saw this in 2012 as Ashton Kutcher was lambasted for wearing brown make-up on his face to impersonate an Indian in an advertisement, which was later removed following the uproar. However, the issue has not been tackled as a real racial problem, perhaps due to the lack of clearly defined lines between non-political correctness and cultural appropriation. It is also important to note the difference between cultural appropriation of costumes and those which are outright racist.

There are many who would claim that the lack of intent to cause offence does not excuse anyone dressing up in what they deem to be an inappropriate manner. Costumes such as those of Native Americans and geishas, while they may not be in any way offensive in the eyes of the person wearing them, can be construed as cultural appropriation by others for many different reasons. For the Native Americans, this is largely due to the decimation of their homes and population by white people. The commodification of their culture for consumption by the very race who removed it from them can be seen as extremely insulting. Katy Perry’s performance at the AMAs dressed as a geisha caused outrage because of its sexualisation of Japanese women. However there are no statistics in relation to cultural appropriation- no estimates of numbers of culturally appropriated items in shops or of those who have either been aware of the appropriation of their culture or have appropriated someone else’s- and very few studies into the facts and the figures behind cultural appropriation; why? At the moment there are numerous occurrences of cultural appropriation being recognised in the media but the issue will either fade into commonplace culture and non-academically examined, as seems most likely at present, or be recognised quite possibly as a form of racism in the future, and it is interesting to consider the possibilities.

On visiting a Halloween costume shop in Dublin, I took a quick look at the costumes that surrounded me. These included the typical witches, pirates, vampires, nurses, clowns, priests, Indians, geishas, flappers, terrorists and others. However, a quick Google image search of “Irish Halloween costume” heralds more results than I thought it would of people dressed as leprechauns and Irish dancers clutching pints. This prompts an interesting question. Does the level of insult of cultural appropriation depend on the nationality of the person who is doing the appropriation? Would an Irish person, for instance, be more insulted by an English person dressing up as an “Irish leprechaun” than an Australian, given our troubled history with England? The Native Americans never had any problems with the Irish- would it therefore be more acceptable for an Irish person to dress up as Pocahontas than a white American? Perhaps the appropriateness of appropriation exists as a scale rather than as right versus wrong.

Though it can be said that cultural identity is extremely important to people, there is also the argument that other types of identity are appropriated as often if not more than racial. For instance, occupations- nurses, firemen, policemen, priests, nuns- are arguably as often if not more often appropriated and more obviously insulted at Halloween. The “slutty nurse” costumes, the “nutty professor” look are ones we all know well but are accepted by society as reasonable and normalised costumes by those wearing them and those in the nursing and science professions alike. Claiming the inappropriateness of appropriation for the reason that is an attack on personal identity is certainly questionable, for the same reasons that comedians such as Louis CK are half condemned, half celebrated- matters of personal taste cannot be dictated to the individual.

There are no laws against cultural appropriation, and I have yet to see a public place with rules forbidding the use of cultural appropriation during Halloween. We have all seen costumes on the other hand, online and elsewhere, of people with fake bodies of children sellotaped to be hanging off tshirts, of the Twin Towers and of children dressed up as condom wrappers. Halloween is a time of fun and jest. Unfortunately it so happens that as with a lot of comedy, whether tasteful or tasteless, somebody is probably going to be insulted. Dress-up for one day of the year is possibly one of the less valid reasons to do so.

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