Cultural Appropriation and Halloween

This Saturday is one of the most fun holidays of the year- Halloween. It’s fun to plan your costume and to go out candy-hunting (or, as most call it, trick-or-treating) with your friends. But there is a line that some costumes cross, a line where having fun crosses over into offensive cultural appropriation.

What exactly is cultural appropriation? It’s when a dominant group (for example, white people) adopt an aspect of a minority group’s culture (say, Native American headdresses) and use it as a costume or as a fun fashion accessory. This is a problem for so many reasons. Amandla Stenberg put it perfectly when she called out Kylie Jenner for wearing dreadlocks: “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” Furthermore, when a privileged person takes an aspect of a minority group’s culture, they don’t have to deal with the prejudice and racism that minority groups have to face on a daily basis.

When we talk about cultural appropriation, we have to ensure that we are creating space for people of minority groups to have a voice. While it is great for white people to recognize that there is a problem, we can’t be the dominant voices in this conversation. We need to be allies to minorities, and work to create an understanding of what cultural appropriation is and how to avoid it.

Part of creating space means not getting offended when cultural appropriation is discussed. Too often conversations becomes focused on white people, to put it bluntly, whining about how their “freedom of expression is being crippled” or that “[insert minority group] is being too sensitive, it’s just a costume.” When I hear white people complain like this, it makes me feel sick. Privileged groups have the horrible tendency to make conversations about themselves, when we really need to be focusing on the experiences of minority groups. If we make it all about white people and how they feel slighted, we miss the point of the conversation entirely.

Halloween is meant to be a fun holiday, and all it takes to keep it that way is a little sensitivity. It is ok to dress up as a specific historical figure that you admire, like Barack Obama or Cleopatra. What is not ok is taking parts of a minority group’s culture (say, an indian spirit dress or dreadlocks) and wearing it as a funny costume, without recognizing the historical experiences of that group, and realizing the social implications someone of that minority group has to deal with for wearing what you have taken as a costume. Cultural appropriation is a massive issue, and I don’t understand all the nuances and complexities of it. But it is important that everyone tries to be kind and respectful every day of the year, and especially with your costumes on Halloween.

The Myth of “Innocence”

*Author’s Note: This article focuses on the experiences of women because the author is a female, and so has direct experience with that perspective. This is not intended to say that men do not also suffer from related issues, but that this specific problem is primarily felt by women.

The dictionary defines innocence as “freedom from sin or moral wrong; harmlessness.”  This is the traditional meaning of the word. Society has created a second meaning; An “innocent” girl is one who is not sexually active. This second definition is incredibly prevalent in school communities, like Friends Academy; Female students that are not perceived to be sexually active are seen as innocent and good.

Why is a woman’s worth so directly tied to whether or not they are sexually active? And why is a woman who isn’t sexually active seen as superior to one who is? These misguided and outdated beliefs likely stem from a variety of issues, such as a lack of comprehensive sexual education in high schools and media sources that reinforce the idea that women who are sexually active are “sluts.” But it boils down to the fact that society as a whole continues to maintain that sex is bad…if it’s a woman who is sexually active.

The cold, hard truth is that a woman owning and even *gasp* being proud of her sexuality scares people. Women who engage in consensual sex, especially while in high school, often get a reputation among their peers as “slutty” or “promiscuous;” Yet, men who are sexually active are applauded for their actions. Furthermore, women are encouraged to retain their virginity and remain “innocent”, whereas men are applauded for losing their. Why are women shamed for doing the same thing men do? Why do we still buy into this horrifyingly sexist double standard?

As a society we should be striving to be progressive, and to be fair, we have taken steps in this direction. But no society can honestly call itself progressive while it still enforces this double standard for men and women. Unfortunately, these sexist beliefs are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we do not notice even when it affects our behavior. We give women this ideal of innocence to strive for in order to be seen as “good.” In this way society reinforces the harmful notion that women should be ashamed of their sexuality.

Innocence itself is not the criminal here. It is a word, and a word only has the power that we choose to give it. But this word is far too often used to praise women who are not sexually active, helping society to maintain a sexist double standard. Someone’s “goodness” should not be based on whether are not that person is sexually active. All women should be respected, regardless of their perceived “innocence.”