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Considering the consequences of cultural appropriation

Staff Writer Didi Akintemi 

Math Teacher Neil Basu remembers a past Halloween at ASL when students dressed up as the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. He acknowledges the legend connected to the team, and understands why students wanted to pay homage in their costume choice, yet wonders if the students were aware of what other connotations their choice of costume might have.

Every year, Halloween festivities create the possibility for cultures to be appropriated in timely racist ideals: the belief that people of marginalized groups are less than. Yet, it wasn’t until 2017 that Oxford Dictionary actually added the phrase “cultural appropriation” to their official lexicons, defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

In its most simplest definition, appropriation is the act of a privileged group misrepresenting and often times disrespecting a marginalized group and their culturally connected items.

For centuries, marginalized groups have faced oppression for their cultural differences from  modern day Western societies. When Halloween comes around, marginalized groups often face people mocking their identity through various costumes. Basu, who is also the mentor for the Social Justice Council (SJC), believes that certain Halloween costumes take aspects from different cultures and cheapen the meaning of their trends or ideas for the punchline of a joke. He found this evident with the Jamaican bobsled costume. “Are you trying to make fun of [their looks]? Are you trying to do it so you can wear Afro wigs?” he said.

Culturally connected items such as Afros are often pinned to be the butt of the joke with little regard for the historical meaning.

The fashion industry often comes under fire for cultural insensitivity, with celebrities like Kim Kardashian receiving attention for frequently misrepresenting cultures. Olivia Benjamin-McDonald (’21) recognizes the double standards that come along with being a woman of color against the world of social media. She believes the problem lies with the fact that culturally significant items are appropriated for fashion rather than as a celebration of culture. “There is so much background and backlash that black women and men who wear cornrows would get. Compared to when [Kim Kardashian] wears it, she changes the name and gets called trendy,” Benjamin-McDonald said.

There’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation when it comes to fashion, but Benjamin-McDonald believes there should be acceptance and recognition around the stigma black women and men get for it, whilst one group is penalized another is “edgy” or “stylish.”

While there has been gradual progress made to recognize and prevent cultural appropriation, there is still a long way to go. Movements such as the “My Culture is Not a Costume” campaign have gained national attention in their efforts to increase awareness. Vika Pertsovsky (’22) understands the frustration of the minority group, and although she struggles to relate entirely she believes it is important for people to take the issue seriously. “The fact that we are all diverse and so different from one another should be embraced and not misinterpreted by others, even for a Halloween costume,” she said.

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