Culture or costume: Cultural appropriation on Halloween

Picture an aerospace engineer who was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation, reduced to a sexy Indian princess Halloween costume for anyone to wear. That is what Leti Romo, assistant director for the Cross-Cultural Engagement, sees when she witnesses the cultural appropriation of her Native American culture.

“Naturally, I think, people don’t look at a costume and they’re like, ‘Wow, that oppresses a lot of people,’ – it’s not generally your first instinct,” said Mani Woodley, a sophomore political science and history major and director of publicity for the Black Student Union.

Woodley and Romo both feel strongly about how offensive cultural appropriation is in everyday life, especially when they see people disrespecting their cultures by wearing inappropriate Halloween costumes. Romo and Woodley both strive to make a difference on campus and make students more aware about this issue.

Last year around Halloween, the Cross-Cultural Engagement released a series of photos around campus and online of students who took a stand against culturally appropriating costumes that read: “We are a culture, not a costume. I am a person, not a stereotype.”

Woodley identifies as primarily Black, and also African American. When she sees someone in the media like Kylie Jenner with dreads in her hair, Woodley thinks of the oppression her father has personally faced for having the same hairstyle, which represents his culture.

“People don’t realize (that celebrities) culturally appropriate when they do things. For example, even their … modified body parts … and they have a big derriere, they have big lips. There are always jokes about black women’s lips or butts. Now we have the Kardashians, who have these big butts and stuff and people are like, ‘Wow, it looks so hot.’”

Summer Blair, a junior strategic and corporate communications major and the president of the Black Student Union, said she has noticed “micro-aggressions,” or insults to another person’s culture or appearance, on campus in the form of the language people use, such as derogatory names.

“Acknowledging (so race, but using it in a negative way, that’s what I think cultural appropriation is,” Blair said.

She said she has also noticed that with themed costume parties, people tend not to acknowledge certain aspects of culture that they may be offending. Blair gave the example of Cinco de Mayo parties where everyone wears sombreros and drinks tequila. In these instances, students are appropriating rather than appreciating that culture.

“It just makes you feel less than (other people) because they can easily wipe off this makeup, but this is you – who you are every day. Is it a joke me being Black like every other day of the week, when it’s not Halloween?” Blair said, in regard to a friend dressing up as Kanye West and painting their face with black makeup.

Mehana Lee, junior strategic corporate and communications major and the cultural consultant for Pua`ikeana, or Hawai`i Club, said it’s important to ensure campus-wide cultural awareness, especially in regard to Halloween costumes. Lee recommended that students who choose to wear a hula skirt and put sunscreen on their nose refrain from saying they’re dressing up as a Hawaiian, but instead they should say they’re “a tourist vacationing in a tropical area.”

“We are much more than hula dancers, aloha shirts, surfers, white sand beaches and palm trees. Just like any other culture of the world, we have our own native language, beliefs, history and traditions that we follow,” Lee wrote in an email.

Romo feels that every student has something to learn about other cultures, and she advises everyone to question whether or not their costumes this Halloween are oppressive or offensive to any one group of people.

Additional reporting by Ashley Probst.

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