With Halloween fast approaching, it’s time to start thinking about safe trick-and-treat routes for the kids, whether the carved pumpkin will have a happy or spooky face – and whether the costumes to be proudly worn vs violate the relatively new doctrine cultural appropriation.
Human society or culture develops in two distinct but not necessarily mutually exclusive ways: 1) through independent invention and 2) through diffusion (borrowing). While independent inventions are rare, borrowing is common.
Historically, it occurs when members of two different cultures come into contact. Once this contact is made, members of each group may be exposed to new technologies, beliefs, lore, weapons, cooking techniques, clothing, or art. This shared routine of contact followed by borrowing has thrived since the first humans roamed the earth. Once exposed to new cultural pathways, members of each culture can choose to accept, reject, or modify them. Only when one group dominates the other, forcing members of its subordinates to adopt their beliefs and technologies, will acculturation be enforced.
The further development of human cultural evolution was primarily possible through selective cultural appropriation. How did this progressive human process evolve into its contemporary negative connotation?
In today’s United States, we’re said to value diversity, even calling it America’s “greatest strength.” We continue to celebrate the notion of “America, the great melting pot” and our often-professed commitment to multiculturalism. Is there a college or university today that doesn’t have an office for multicultural affairs?
Yet somewhere in this evolutionary history, the appropriation (borrowing) of a cultural artifact, clothing, belief, hairstyle, clothing, food, art, etc., from another culture was not only frowned upon; it can now lead to the exposed perpetrator being censured, embarrassed, shunned, expelled from school or even fired from the job. The Student Government Association of the University of Ottawa served as an early example in 2015 canceled yoga classesand claimed they were an insensitive example of cultural appropriation.
The current and negative concept of cultural appropriation is a relatively new phenomenon. Its roots can be traced back to American universities in the early 1980s, when it emerged from the post-colonial revisionist movement in academia. Although the term “cultural appropriation” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017, it does not enjoy a universally accepted definition. For example, three years ago, during the Halloween season, a USA Today reporter sought out “experts” on cultural appropriation. One of these “experts,” Neal Lester, director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, defined cultural appropriation as “the appropriation of elements of another’s culture without permission!”
The obvious question that arises from Lester’s ridiculous definition is who does one have to ask permission from in a particular culture? If your child wants to dress up as Moana this Halloween, who is the custodian of traditional Hawaiian culture? Do you need to get permission from a main status thoroughbred Hawaiian, or would an ordinary status Hawaiian suffice? Should such approval be in writing and notarized?
Did Katy Perry commit an unforgivable sin by wearing a traditional geisha costume at the 2013 American Music Awards, or was Perry simply trying to pay homage to traditional Japanese geisha culture? Perry’s critics called her actions a blatant and insensitive display of cultural appropriation.
How do we draw the line between appreciating a culture’s cuisine, beliefs, dress and technology and appropriating such cultural elements? The acknowledgment and appropriation of different cultural assets and beliefs form the backbone of human evolution.
It seems that diversity can only be our strength when others determine how and if it can be acquired and celebrated. A widely accepted and alternative definition of cultural appropriation is that it occurs when “a member of a majority group benefits financially from the culture of a minority group.” It is likely that many academics would have a problem with this definition as any professor who is a member of the majority group would be barred from earning a salary for courses on African, Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern or Native American cultures, societies, history , art, literature or cuisine. That day may come as we continue down the slippery slope of revisionist cultural appropriation. After all, revolutions often reign so far back that their followers eat their own.
Remember when choosing a Halloween ensemble was fun and exciting rather than nerve-wracking? I wonder if any of those capitalist costume factories that capitalize on their cultural acknowledgment strategies have a range of snowflake costumes.
Richard A. Marksbury is a cultural anthropologist and retired professor at Tulane University.