UM professor discusses cultural appropriation at Halloween

Dominique R. McGhee

Every Halloween, people dress up as ghosts and witches and celebrities for a night of fun and fright, but sometimes that fun shifts towards the offensive and hurtful.

In recent years, cultural appropriation has taken a spotlight in public discussion as people become more socially aware and socially conscious.

Defining the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is not always easy, but Dominique Scott, a junior double major in African American studies and sociology who is minoring in gender studies, has strong definition for it.

“In my opinion, the line between appropriation and appreciation is when one utilizes aspects of another culture and ignores the cultural or historical significance of that costume,” said Scott. “Appreciation is when you ask questions to understand. Do not assume, and do not tokenize an individual for their opinion.”

Certain costumes, wigs and makeup that are widely popular, such as blackface or Geisha costumes where the costume-wearer sometimes tapes their eyes back, have been recognized as culturally offensive.

It is important to remember that when choosing to dress as a person of another race and partaking in racial clichés, a person who feels insulted might approach you.

“Historically, non-white cultures have been mocked and commercialized for decades,” said Scott. “There is no such thing as being too sensitive to insulting displays of ignorance to your culture, race or ethnicity.”

FullSizeRender 3Dr. Jeffrey T. Jackson, associate professor of sociology, spoke about the historical side of appropriation.

“During colonial times, it was quite common for subjugated people to don the outfits of the colonial powers in an effort to make fun of or mock their colonial rulers,” said Jackson. “People in power have also dressed up as subordinate peoples.”

The pattern of cultural appropriation is sometimes lost in larger racial issues during history.

“Think about the American tradition of dressing up as Indians, for example. In the 19th and early 20th century, it was quite common for whites to dress up in blackface and ‘perform’ as black people,” Jackson said. “This is a very different dynamic and is generally thought of as appropriation because the group in power is exploiting the cultural heritage of these other groups for their own fun and economic benefit.”

Unfortunately, Jackson has seen instances of cultural appropriation on the Ole Miss campus.

“Many fraternities and sororities have dress up parties with these themes quite often. One of the fraternities was suspended a number of years ago when pictures of their members at Halloween dressed in blackface showed up on Facebook,” said Jackson.

Jackson also noted that, in an older Ole Miss student annual from the 1980s, pictures from blackface parties could be found.

When asked what he thought could be done to change these habits in others, Jackson said: “When we see it, we can say: ‘That’s not funny.’”

“In my experience, if people know the party is going to be made up of diverse groups, they won’t dress up this way. So we need more diversity in our parties,” said Jackson.

Melody Frierson, youth engagement coordinator at the William Winter Institute, spoke about the way social media has played a role in people of color taking a stand against cultural appropriation.FullSizeRender 4

“People have always been upset by cultural appropriation,” she said. “This is not something new. I think that social media plays a huge role in our awareness of cultural appropriation.

“People are outraged and angry, and they aren’t quiet about it. They have this platform to say this is not okay.”

With the growing awareness of cultural appropriation, there is a realization that it is not a one-sided issue.

“It’s not just white students that are doing this kind of stuff. Black, brown and Asian students are participating in cultural appropriation,” said Frierson.

The use of Native American headdresses and Indian bindis has gained popularity in the fashion world, and because of that popularity, people do not think of the cultural implications.

Another aspect of cultural appropriation that gets overlooked, especially on Halloween, is children’s costumes. The argument has been made that the children are unaware of what it means, but that does not lessen the issue.

“An adult put that small child in that outfit,” said Frierson. “If a little Asian girl wants to be Doc McStuffins for Halloween, she can be that without afro puffs.”

The key to avoiding cultural appropriation during Halloween is being aware and choosing aspects of a costume that give the essence of the character or person without becoming what looks like a mockery.

Frierson encourages people to “call people out” and let others know when their actions hurt them or are offensive.

With more and more people becoming socially conscious and willing to learn from their mistakes, it seems like progress is being made.

“We’ve come a really long way,” Frierson said. “There is outrage that is being broadcast widely. On the other hand, we haven’t come as far as we like to think we have.”

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