Cultural appropriation turns Halloween into a nightmare

Halloween is again upon us. Across the United States, the prospect of frightening images have some pledging to skip the holiday or closely shield their children. It is not the scary decorations or costumes but “cultural appropriation” that has triggered a tradition of recrimination and anger. Colleges and universities have warned students not to dress as Indian chiefs or Mexican bandits, while parents have publicly debated whether they can allow their children to dress as the Black Panther or Moana without being accused of cultural appropriation or racism.

“Cultural appropriation” has become a common term on campuses and is receiving broader meaning with each passing year. In Utah, a high school student was denounced for wearing a Chinese dress to her prom. White students wearing hoop earrings or dreadlocks have been denounced, while there have been protests over serving sushi at Oberlin College, holding yoga classes at the University of Ottawa or having a “Mexican food night” at Clemson University. The reason behind such limitless forms of cultural appropriation is its limitless meaning. Fordham University law professor Susan Scafidi has defined the term as encompassing the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols” and more.

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That makes Halloween a nightmarish orgy of cultural appropriation. Colleges and universities now post warnings not to dress as Native Americans, geishas, samurai, or other images. Syracuse University even threatened a few years ago to have its campus police force students to remove “offensive” costumes. There is remarkably little debate over such directives because many faculty members fear being labeled as racist or insensitive. What is increasingly rare is any dialogue or willingness to accept that people can hold good faith views on both sides.

CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers dismissed the concerns of white people who object to being labeled racist over Halloween costumes, tweeting, “Dear white people who are upset that you can’t dress up as another race or culture for Halloween: your feelings don’t matter.” She went on to add that the only feelings that matter are of those who feel disrespected or mocked by appropriating their culture. Similarly, in an Everyday Feminism article a few years ago, Kat Lazo advised that people who do not see the inherent racism or cultural appropriation in costumes are “very privileged” individuals who “never had the misfortune of experiencing or witnessing acts of racism.” That of course is a common conversation stopper if someone says any objection to cultural appropriation means you are ignorant and likely a racist in denial.

There is another possibility that reasonable people can disagree. There are clearly racist costumes that most of us join in denouncing, such as blackface or other raw portrayals. However, the cultural appropriation movement opposes any depiction of another culture. Indeed, what constitutes a social norm can be hard to discern. A New York Times column gave a tortured account of whether parents could allow their children to dress as Black Panther. The article included advice on sitting down with kids to discuss racial implications of their choices and, as Texas Woman’s University professor Brigitte Vittrup warned, “by not mentioning it, by not talking about it, we’re essentially preserving the status quo.”

An article by Sachi Feris explored her struggle with her young daughter who wanted to dress like Moana or Elsa last year. She wrote, “I had some reservations regarding both costume choices” and about cultural appropriation, noting the “power” and “privilege” carried by “whiteness” and the standards of beauty that go along with it. Elsa did not reflect cultural appropriation but rather discomfort over how her character “sends the message that you have to be a certain way” to look “beautiful” or to be a “princess” and that you have to have blonde hair and blue eyes. Feris disliked the message. Moana was portrayed as a perfect nightmare for a white girl to adopt, since she told her daughter she is white like Elsa. She instead encouraged her daughter to be Mickey Mouse because this way she would not be “making fun of anyone or dressing up as a culture different from our own because Mickey Mouse is a pretend mouse!”

Ironically, under the standard definition, Halloween itself could be denounced as a raw cultural appropriation. The precursors to Halloween can be traced to the old Celtic tradition of Samhain that explores the line between the living and the dead. However, there has long been a fantasy tradition around the world of using Halloween festivities to pretend you are someone else, as shown by the British tradition of “fancy dress” balls.

Despite the dismissal by Kirsten Powers, there are legitimate concerns on both sides and legitimate questions of whether common cultural images should be viewed as owned or controlled by a group. There also is the debate over who decides in limiting such free expression. Last week, Aulii Cravalho, the actress who played Moana in the Disney movie, declared it “absolutely appropriate” for kids to dress up as the Polynesian princess if it is “done in the spirit of love” and “for the little ones who just want to dress up as their favorite heroine.” Is it enough for a native Hawaiian teenager, with a financial interest in the Disney movie, saying it is okay?

Cultural foods and images are shared in society and the arts, particularly in a pluralistic nation like the United States. Adopting a cuisine or a costume is not “appropriating” a culture. Those are part of the mosaic of shared influences and images in a diverse free society. Dressing as a bandit from the movie “Treasure of Sierra Nevada” is not appropriating the Mexican culture. It is mimicking the character of Alfonso Bedoya.

Notably, motivation or message seems irrelevant to the definition of cultural appropriation. It does not matter if such symbols were viewed as celebrating the purity or bravery of a group. Certainly, many costumes incorporate cultural images that have exaggerated or oversimplified elements. But when children dress up as princesses, they are fantasizing, just as they do in dressing as cowboys or soldiers or samurai. They often are portraying positive elements like courage or grace in wearing those cultural images. Is it necessary to dump all our adult anxieties on our children or draw connections to our existing social problems?

The alternative is that we accept that cultural icons like Moana are shared and become part of a broader cultural tradition and dialogue. That little girl in the Indian outfit just might be a little girl who wants to be like Pocahontas, a heroine who is strong and unafraid, nothing more. By the way, it is pretty cool to see kids still pretending and dressing up without having to carry all of our problems, from rapes to racism, as they file down our streets on Halloween. We somehow forget how to do that along the way to adulthood. Maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from that samurai or princess who comes knocking on our door on Halloween.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.