As Halloween rapidly approaches, it is time to consider safe trick-and-treating routes for the children, whether the carved pumpkin will have a happy or scary face — and if the costumes to be proudly worn violate the relatively new doctrine of cultural appropriation.
Human society, or culture, progresses through two different but not necessarily mutually exclusive paths: 1) through independent invention, and 2) through diffusion (borrowing). While independent invention is rare, borrowing is common.
Historically, it takes place when members of two different cultures come into contact. Once this contact occurs, members of each group may be exposed to new technologies, beliefs, lore, weapons, cooking techniques, clothing or art. This common routine of contact, followed by borrowing, has flourished since the first humans roamed the earth. Once exposed to new cultural ways, members of each culture can choose to accept, reject or modify them. It is only when one group is dominant over the other and when it forces members of the subordinate to adopt its beliefs and technology does acculturation become forced.
The advancement of human cultural evolution has been possible primarily through selective cultural appropriation. How did this progressive human process devolve into its contemporary negative connotation?
In today’s United States, we are said to value diversity and even claim it to be America’s “greatest strength.” We continue to pay homage to the notion of “America, the Great Melting Pot,” and to our often-stated commitment to multi -culturalism. After all, is there a college or university today that does not have an Office of Multicultural Affairs?
Yet somewhere along this evolutionary tale, appropriating (borrowing) a cultural artifact, dress, belief, hairstyle, clothing, food, art, etc. from another culture became not only frowned upon; it can now result in the exposed perpetrator being censored, shamed , shunned, dismissed from school or even fired from a job. As an early example, in 2015 the student government association of the University of Ottawa canceled yoga classes, asserting they represented an insensitive example of cultural appropriation.
The current and negative concept of cultural appropriation is a relatively new phenomenon. Its roots can be traced to America’s universities during the early 1980s, when it emerged from academia’s post-colonial revisionism movement. Even though the term “cultural appropriation” was added in 2017 to the Oxford English Dictionary, it does not enjoy a widely accepted definition. For example, during the season of Halloween three years ago, a USA Today sought reporter out “experts” on cultural appropriation. One of those “experts,” Neal Lester, Arizona State University’s director of its Project Humanities, defined cultural appropriation as “taking elements of someone else’s culture without permission!”
The obvious question arising from Lester’s laughable definition is, in any given culture, from whom must one seek permission? If your child would like to dress up as Moana for Halloween this year, who is the warden of Hawaiian traditional culture? Must you seek permission from a full-blooded Hawaiian with chiefly status, or would a Hawaiian with commoner status suffice? Should such permission be in writing and notarized?
Did Katy Perry commit an unforgivable sin when she wore 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 labeled her actions as a crass and insensitive display of cultural appropriation .
How do we draw the line between appreciating a culture’s cuisine, beliefs, dress and technology, versus appropriating such cultural elements? Appreciating and then acquiring different cultural items and beliefs form the backbone of human evolution.
It seems diversity can only be our strength when others determine how and if it can be acquired and celebrated. A widely accepted and alternate definition of cultural appropriation states that it occurs when “a member of a majority group profits financially from the culture of a minority group.” It is likely many academics would have a problem with this definition, since any professor who is a member of the majority group would be prohibited from earning a salary for teaching courses about African, Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern or Native American cultures, societies, history, art, literature or cuisine. That day may come if we continue down the slippery slope of revisionist cultural appropriation. After all, revolutions often regress to the point where their followers eat their own.
Remember when selecting a Halloween ensemble was fun and exciting and not nerve-racking? I wonder if any of those capitalistic costume-making companies, which profit from their cultural approbation strategies, have an assortment of snowflake costumes.
Richard A. Marksbury is a cultural anthropologist and a retired Tulane University professor.