What is Cultural Appropriation and Why You Should Cut it Out

 In Relevant Issues

I’ve sure you’ve heard this term floating around the Internet before. Especially around Halloween time.

A quick Google search tells us that “Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. It is often portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.”

In plain English, cultural appropriation is when someone else uses an element of a culture that they don’t belong to. But wait. That’s what civilization is, isn’t it? Cultures exchanging ideas and combining to make something bigger? How can you not adopt things from other cultures, especially if you live somewhere like America where cultures are meant to mix? The difference is that if the culture is being appropriated, there is an understanding that the cultural element being used is being used in a way that is dishonest or disrespectful. This is where the harm or violation comes in.

Cultural appreciation is quite different. But there must be a clear way to show that you are appreciating, benefiting, or respecting the culture. Otherwise, sorry girl, it’s probably offensive.

Here are some classic examples of cultural appropriation and a brief explanation as to why they are unacceptable.

My Culture is Not a Costume

You may not have realized this, but every time you painted a sugar skull on your face or decorated with sugar skull lights or stickers, you were inadvertently offending an entire culture. Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that brings friends and family together to pray for and remember family members who have died. There are practices and rituals during Day of the Dead that are meant to assist deceased loved ones on their spiritual journey.

It is sacred. It is important. It has been observed generation after generation. And while some of the holiday may resemble a Halloween in it’s inclusion of celebrations, sweets, and food, it’s not Mexican Halloween. When you draw a sugar skull because it’s pretty, and give no respect to where it came from or what it signifies, you’re sort of being a jerk.

Pretty much any time you dress up like a culture, that is cultural appropriation. And at Halloween, there tends to be “slutty” versions of most popular costumes, which makes them that much worse. That includes but is not limited to:

  • Mexican outfits (sombreros, ponchos, etc.)… think Cinco de Mayo
  • Native American outfits
  • Japanese kimonos or Geisha-girl outfits

My Culture is Not a Fashion Statement

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sam Deitch/BFA/REX/Shutterstock (5898234bs)
Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner
Marc Jacobs show, Spring Summer 2017, new York Fashion Week, USA – 15 Sep 2016

Cultural appropriation isn’t just limited to costumes and it isn’t just limited to Mexican, Native American, or Japanese cultures.

Did you know that until around 2014, the U.S. military banned African American soldiers and service members from wearing afros, braid, twists or dreadlocks? Many women had to either perm their hair, cut their hair, or wear a wig in order to serve. Only a few months ago, two young black women were banned from playing school sports and going to prom due to the fact that they wore their hair in braids.

Natural hair on black individuals is often ridiculed, mocked, or banned. However, many white celebrities use dreadlocks and braids as a fashion statement and are heralded for their creativity.

Imagine if you went to school with your hair a certain way and got kicked out. And a white girl did the same and was given an award. And the only difference between the two of you: your race.

That is cultural appropriation and that is why you should care. Not all instances of cultural appropriation are intentional or are committed by racists. Some individuals don’t care one way or the other if you dress up like their ancestors for Halloween. But as a whole, it represents and perpetuates racist tendencies and ideologies.

What does that have to do with makeup?

So this is a makeup blog for a makeup app. What significance does this issue have here?

When you go to pick out a costume for Halloween, it may involve makeup (let’s hope!) And that make up may be offensive. Sugar skulls alone are problematic. As makeup artists, makeup professionals, or even just makeup lovers, we have a responsibility to be respectful with our art.

This Halloween, take a look around whatever party or event you go to. Try to count how many costumes are actually just a visualization of a culture. Observe the makeup they’ve done to complete the look. If you’re feeling brave, go up to them and ask them to explain what the outfit signifies or why they did their makeup that way. I once asked a guy dressed like a Native American if he knew what the headdress he was wearing was for. (War bonnets are feathered headgear traditionally worn by male leaders of the American Plains Indians Nations who have earned a place of great respect in their tribe. Originally they were sometimes worn into battle, but they are now primarily used for ceremonial occasions. (source)) He had no idea.

If you really, really want to dress up like a Native American or Sugar Skull for Halloween, go ahead. But look it up first. Do some research. Do it properly, in a way that honors instead of mocks that culture. If you don’t like it when Kylie Jenner or Miley Cyrus does it to you, don’t do it to someone else.



Allie is a freelance entrepreneur who uses beauty/lifestyle blogging as a way to escape and to re-examine her life. She is the founder of Shade Collective and is fascinated by the golden age of representation and strength the black community in America has been discovering. You can find her on Instagram at @allienichelle

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