“The oversexualized buckskin Indian princess costume or things of that nature that reflect upon the use of stereotypes to oppress or limit or define certain groups of people,” Richotte said. “I think that it is possible to appreciate another culture without having to participate or center oneself inside of it. So, that, it’s fine to celebrate, say, Asian American culture or Asian culture or to appreciate the many fine examples of that culture without wearing a geisha costume.”
Sophomore Mandarin Chinese major Amanda Roberts concurred with Richotte’s perspective.
“I feel like ones that draw on very broad stereotypes — so a lot of Native American ones — are ones that I kind of really don’t like because they don’t even vaguely represent what they are supposed to and make fun of the cultures," Roberts said. "They use symbols and stuff kind of like the geisha costumes. They’re kind of offensive because those women who were (geishas) went through a lot, and society downgraded them so like, 'Why are you dressing like one, except to look cute?'”
Richotte and Roberts both found specific costumes where the wearer represents other cultures without considering their historical, racial and cultural significance to be an example of cultural appropriation. In addition to geisha and Native American costumes, they considered any outfit that elevates one race or culture above another falls under the category of cultural appropriation.
“I think anything that is not careful enough about the asymmetry in terms of race relations in North Carolina and in the U.S. should not be used as a Halloween costume,” said Mark W. Driscoll, Department of Asian Studies associate professor. “That’s my firm line on this. In other words, I don’t think people should deride or party people that are below them socially.”
China Medel, Department of Communication professor and post-doctoral fellow said the portrayal of a culture as a costume was found to be an example of cultural appropriation. While many costumes like Dia de los Muertos skeletons were culturally significant, Medel did not see it as an appropriate Halloween costume.
“A culture is not a costume,” Medel said. “If you are dressing up as a geisha, that is not a costume. That is a cultural practice with a real, specific historical attachment and significance to it. Moreover, it is racialized. So I think when you are dressing up, that is almost different from cultural appropriation. That’s just garden-variety racism."
She continues her explanation with an example.
"To dress up as a racialized person, to dress up as a Japanese woman, it is not unlike dressing up in blackface, where you are taking on a racial identity as part of your costume," Medel said. "I think it’s just like dressing up as a Native American or dressing up as a Dia de los Muertos skeleton or Frida Kahlo, especially if you are not Latinx or an indigenous Mexican.”
Multiple professors offered insight about how people can determine whether or not a costume would be considered an example of cultural appropriation. Asking simple questions like the following can help determine whether or not a costume could be deemed cultural appropriation:
- Do you know where this tradition is coming from that you are appreciating? Who practices this culture, and what is the significance of that practice to that group of peoples?
- Are you taking this culture for your own or as somebody else’s that you are appreciating by practicing it or living it out in some way by performing it?
- What are you doing with this costume? Are you really celebrating it, or just taking it as something that is not yours merely for the purpose of engaging in tropes about different peoples?
The overarching theme between each of these questions is explained by Driscoll.
“That’s the biggest question to ask: where is the blurring, the kind of border zone or the no-person zone between appropriation and appreciation,” said Driscoll. “I think this always has aspects of appreciation in it, but I think that’s for each person. I think each case is singular or specific, and I think that’s for each person to negotiate for him or herself, but I think they should be aware of that question."
Driscoll also encourages each person to consider their own situations regarding their Halloween costume.
"That’s really getting to the heart of the issue," Driscoll said. "The kernel of the issue is appropriation versus appreciation, because I think that’s the best way to approach this very broad, very delicate issue.”