Yes, we’ve all seen them.
Stashed among the droves of revelers on Halloween, flooding the streets in small masses of glitter and leather, a Pocahottie will emerge from behind the crowd, with fringed suede frock hiked high above her knees, a feathered headband framing her face, smeared red from the ambiguous tribal paint that didn’t survive the sweaty evening. Next to her, two guys in striped ponchos give each other a high five, disturbing their cartoonish sombreros and skewing their oversized black moustaches in laughter.
Saris, kimonos, black braids, and turbans have become staples of Halloween, a veritable United Nations of cultural representation that many would argue is highly distasteful. Cultural appropriation, the adoption of cultural elements that are not one’s own, has been a hot button issue in recent years, most notably surrounding the costumes and physical representations of ethnic minorities in potentially offensive ways.
This kind of appropriation stems from disregard for context and history, says Nolan Cabrera, an assistant professor at the UA Center for the Study of Higher Education. And that disregard often adds insult to injury through poor behavior.
“You know the psychology when people put on masks. They’re more likely to act up,” Cabrera says. “Well, how are they gonna act up when they’re dressed in ridiculous headdress? They begin to embody racist stereotypes of Indian people.”
Tucsonan Cesar Aguirre, a Catholic worker at Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, says events like Cinco de Mayo are an excuse to poorly represent Mexican culture for profit and partying. People string up margarita piñatas and drink tequila without understanding the roots of the celebration, which is largely undetectable in popular media and society.
“I find it really insulting to go downtown during that time of year and see people with sombreros and ponchos on and acting silly, you know?” Aguirre says. “Very ignorant.”
Both Cabrera and Aguirre agree that education is the key combatant against misuse of cultural traditions and imagery. Activists and bloggers also routinely qualify their grievances with appropriation by stressing the importance of historical understanding, claiming that traditions can be adopted as long as they are practiced in their intended context and not transformed into something completely new.
For Cabrera, if you can’t see the appropriation in the headdress and moccasins you’ve chosen for your next music festival, then you probably shouldn’t wear it. “Just play it conservatively,” he says, “‘cause there are so many costumes and practices out there that don’t require treading on somebody else’s culture.”
In a place like Tucson, where indigenous and Latino cultures have strong roots, issues of cultural appropriation can manifest in complicated ways. The All Souls Procession, held every year in November, is a public event where people can communally mourn their dead. The increasingly popular event receives praise and criticism in equal measure regarding its multicultural aesthetics, particularly through its perceived association with Día de los Muertos. Adam Cooper-Terán, a video artist involved in the Procession, explains that the proximity to Mexico means those traditions will be dominantly represented in a public mourning ritual.
“Given the history of Tucson and just the cultural lay of the land, a lot of people will assume or presume that it is Día de los Muertos,” Cooper-Terán says.
Other representatives insist that the Procession is all-inclusive, and encourages people of all faiths and cultures to participate with whatever they deem best suited to grieve or celebrate their lost loved ones. Melanie Cooley, from Many Mouths One Stomach, the organization responsible for the Procession, says she’s seen all sorts of cultures represented, from Scottish bagpipers to Japanese Obon traditions. The organization, she says, is “completely neutral” on how people choose to remember and celebrate their dead within All Souls.
“The procession is whatever people bring to it, and so what’s happened over the years as it’s gotten bigger is a lot of people started to bring Día de los Muertos to it,” she says. “Either because it is their tradition or because people see it and they want what it offers, which is that way of publically and creatively mourning our dead.”
Cooley says people tend to seek guidance on how to grieve and gain closure after the death of a loved one, rules that are often found within cultures that specifically celebrate loss and life.
Aguirre, who initially felt “very disrespected” by the All Souls Procession, admits now he is torn on the issue. Although elements of appropriation still infuse the event, American culture does not have deep-rooted traditions that connect to death and loss and that should be remedied, he says.
“I think that’s something that we all can relate to across all cultural lines and all racial lines and we all deserve a way to celebrate that,” he says. “All Souls has really opened the door to get people to think about what life really is and celebrate the life that they had here.”
And yet, in a society where themed-party goers can still strap on fake dynamite and brown face with impunity, appropriation will remain a sensitive issue, regardless of intentions.
Cabrera says he doesn’t like playing the odds when guessing if knowledge and understanding will improve.
“I’m perpetually hopeful but never optimistic,” he says. “And that might be psychologically messing with my own head because if it wasn’t, I might go nuts looking at how bad things can get.”