As Exeter University dresses up for Halloween, the significant debate over what is culturally acceptable resurges.
Universities across America and the UK are warning their students against appropriating cultures they don’t belong to by dressing up in certain costumes. Universities argue that repeated offenders such as those who dress up as ‘Cowboys and Indians’ misrepresent and reduce a culture to a stereotype, and that this should by no means be advocated. But do the challenges of appropriation go further than a poorly informed costume?
do the challenges of appropriation go further than a poorly informed costume?
‘Folk costumes’ are detailed and accurate traditions of historical attire worn by a particular culture, ranging from a traditional Welsh Costume to the Ugandan ‘Gomesi’; but would wearing and positively engaging with an accurate depiction of another culture be offensive? Furthermore, how can we define the offence being given? Where is the line drawn, if one exists?
Appropriation is often separated from cultural exchange, with the latter being a system that has seen music, food and language develop through a history of overlapping cultures. Halloween, after all, is a Christian exchange of an earlier pagan rite, subsequently passed back to Britain via America. In our globalised world, people are rightly more conscious of where these exchanges take place and what that means. Respect and awareness are paramount. Yet as we become more conscious, the differences between appropriation and exchange are becoming harder to distinguish.
One issue which has gripped America is the commercialisation of African American culture and, in a particular case, black hairstyles: a video of an African American woman challenging a white man wearing dreadlocks at San Fransisco State University went viral earlier this year and has raised hundreds of debates surrounding the topic of appropriation. Was it okay to disregard the history of dreadlocks and wear them “because they look cool”? Do dreadlocks belong solely to black culture, or is that a further appropriation of a more specific regional and religious tradition?
Is it possible to challenge the overcensorship of expression as being a guilt spawned from a history of westernised oppression? And by endorsing this censorship, are we potentially exacerbating a divide in race and society that already exists? Social equality and integration are a positive and ultimate aim for our society and whilst cultural sensitivity and respect is important, perhaps the focus of these arguments takes away from the more disturbing issues surrounding racial and minority prosecution, such as the tensions between the police force and the Black community in America.
Social equality and integration are a positive and ultimate aim for our society
Bringing that back to Halloween, have these costumes become so cartoon and caricatured that the costume now represents the stereotype rather than the stereotype representing the culture; perhaps the wearing of these costumes is a means of mocking such ridiculous and naïve appropriations.
Appropriation should continue to be challenged and debated over Halloween and any other time of year, but is censorship and concealment the appropriate response to an issue that needs greater interest, respect and recognition?