It’s Halloween season again. My friends and I were at Party City in Long Beach early this year to prepare ourselves for a special evening of make believe characters and creatures.
“Oh would you look at that, an exclusive deal!” I said sarcastically to my friends. “For $49.99 I could buy an adult ‘Day of the Dead’ Senor costume complete with a mock tuxedo shirt with ruffles and an attached bowtie.”
I suppose in the perspective of the corporate officers of Party City, all people who celebrate Día de los Muertos wear sombreros and dress in Mariachi-style garb.
All jokes aside, I would really like to know, when did Party City decide Día de los Muertos, the sacred Mexican holiday for celebrating the life of deceased relatives and friends, was a great concept for a costume?
In the United States, we are proud to call our country a melting pot of numerous world cultures. From an early age we are socialized to accept and appreciate the culture of other people because it enriches our perspective on the world, and teaches us how to communicate appropriately with individuals from different backgrounds.
But when does appreciating culture cross the line to insult and appropriation?
According to Dr. Raven Pfister, a communication studies professor at Cal State Long Beach, cultural appropriation is when one dominant culture exploits another culture.
“When people appropriate, there is a clear recognition that they are separate from an exotic, unusual, deviant, and/or different ‘other,'” Dr. Pfister said. “Thus, in appropriating, one is asserting their difference from and most often, their superiority over, a culture that has been ‘othered’ by the mainstream in some way. And whether or not someone is aware that they are appropriating does not make much of a difference in my opinion—the effect on the culture that is being appropriated is the same.”
Just like Party City used Mexican culture to make money on Halloween, advertising agencies, fashion production lines, and artists often pick and choose aspects of another’s culture to make profit, without concern for the people living in that culture.
Can you recall last year’s controversial fashion line that Nike was forced to remove because it was considered racist? Nike designers created leggings with, what they believed to be, tattoo designs of indigenous Australian and New Zealand peoples.
And in 2012, Victoria Secret model Karlie Kloss publically apologized for displaying a ‘Pocahontas’ inspired swimsuit and headdress during the annual fashion show. Also, popular chain store Urban Outfitters faced legal consequences in 2011 for their ‘Navajo’ line of clothing.
According to Xitlali Ramirez, a member of the Luiseqo Band of Mission Indians, the Halloween holiday is often ripe with cultural appropriation.
“As a first nation descendant, I always feel futile frustration, especially around Halloween, when certain individuals think my culture’s traditional regalia can be used as a costume,” said Ramirez. “It hurts to see these individuals completely disregard the painful history attached to my culture, take the bits they find aesthetically pleasing and flaunt it as if it were nothing. Cultural appropriation is the ultimate form of ignorance in my opinion. It’s when people tend to love everything about us, but us.”
So what’s the big deal with appropriation anyway?
Why can’t Gwen Stefani, a popular Caucasian singer, wear a South Asian bindi, display Indians and Cowboys in her “Looking Hot,” music video, or hire Japanese and Japanese American backup dancers to perform in her “Harajuku Girls” song?
Because cultural appropriation often reflects a misrepresentation of those characteristics in a stereotypical way, making it offensive to the real people that are truly connected to those traditions in a meaningful way.
At Party City, for example, the Day of the Dead Senor costume the company created was far from authentic or festive. It couldn’t be described as intercultural exchange. It only succeeded in making a mockery of a sacred holiday for Mexicans and Mexican Americans everywhere.
I find it exhausting to protest businesses and ignorant individuals that appropriate my culture alone. That’s why is it important for everyone to recognize and scrutinize influential people and groups who appropriate culture.
I’m happy to say I am seeing such criticism begin to gain national attention.
So if by chance you happen to be at a Mexican restaurant celebrating your birthday, and your server brings out a sombrero for you to wear, or someone offers you to take a tequila shot with them, keep in mind how simple participation in these stereotypes can contribute to degrading someone else’s culture.