Cultural appropriation causes controversy among different societies and cultures, and is an inevitable topic of discussion especially during Halloween. In October of this year, a Brooklyn mother wrote a blog telling parents not to dress up their children as Moana, because using traditional Polynesian clothing and art as a Halloween costume does not express the respect and understanding that the culture deserves. Her post sparked outrage among other parents who insist that their kids are just having fun and in no way have the intention to disrespect another culture. Therefore, we wanted a question that leads us to discuss when it is ethical to use another person’s culture, which is made up of historical knowledge and emotional attachment to cultural items and celebrations. People feel offended when an individual uses their culture for the sake of entertainment, but can what they claim to be cultural appropriation be ethically excused as children’s’ naivety? This led us to our Knowledge Question: “To what extent does cultural understanding affect what is considered ethical?”
Let’s define some key terms we will be using:
Culture: Something that a society grows with, and therefore learns about its traditions, relations, history, among many others that define different cultures and what makes one so different from another.
Ethics/Ethical: There are many types of ethics, but generally, it is the study of what is considered being ‘right’ and what is considered being ‘wrong’
Naive/Naivety: Showing lack of wisdom or judgement/Innocent
One way of deciding whether or not something is ethical is to consider and understand the historical context behind it. Historically, many cultures were oppressed by others by, for example, being banned from wearing traditional clothing and practicing their religion. People who accuse others of cultural appropriation often explain that the people appropriating the culture are, intentionally or not, perpetuating that oppression. They are also considered hypocritical, because while people from the dominant culture continue to mock the oppressed culture’s traditions, they use things like items of clothing and religious symbols as trendy accessories or decorations. One example of historical cultural appropriation and oppression is the use of blackface in cinema. White actors would paint their faces black and act in a demeaning way to exclude black people from the film industry. The same was true for Asians: White actors would squint and “act asian” in order to exclude Asians from cinema. There is therefore sensitivity around changing the color of one’s skin or otherwise changing one’s physical appearance to mimic a person from another culture or ethnicity.
Emotional attachment to a culture is similar to historical understanding of it; the society’s culture is special to them and they feel offended if someone disrespects it, especially without understanding it. Emotional attachment is what makes a culture special to an individual. If another individual comes along and shows disdain towards an admired culture, it would be an outrage. Emotional attachments to a culture are shown in many ways, therefore stereotyping a culture is unrealistic and demeaning. When an individual has no emotional attachment, they see no wrong in disrespecting it; creating stereotypes and pushing it down as inferior to their culture, sometimes even using harm and violence to establish this status! This establishment is evident in the world today, especially with the Muslims, but shows how limited emotional attachment to and understanding of a culture leads to a mentality that it is okay to belittle the culture.
Another reason why somebody might use other people’s culture in entertainment is naivety. This mainly applies to children and sometimes their parents, or anyone else who doesn’t think that using another culture is offensive. A child who has not yet learned the historical and cultural context of their halloween costume may choose something that is in bad taste. Some people say that it is the parent’s responsibility to use this as an opportunity to teach their child about culture, whereas others believe that we should just let kids have fun. The case for this argument is that discussing race and culture will only teach children that other races are very different from them, however, if the child is wearing something that could be offensive to another person, they should learn that some topics are more sensitive than others and should not be used merely for aesthetics or a joke.
Our knowledge of the historical and cultural context behind an item or action help us to decide what is ethical. It’s important to know the historical context for something so that you don’t accidentally reference a terrible historical event or custom such as blackface. It’s also important to know that some cultures have strong emotional connections to certain items that should be understood and respected by others. Though some people say that it is ethical for a child to do something unethical because they don’t know any better, these moments are the best to teach the child about cultural understanding.
Due to our historical and cultural understanding, we believe that it is ethical to dress up as Moana for Halloween, assuming it is done right. Children wear the Moana costume not for the culture’s aesthetics, but for the love of the character, the need to share its amazing culture and to empower a Polynesian princess, and therefore don’t have a connection to cultural stereotypes. However, they should not change the color of their skin to look like her, because this is a reference to blackface. Parents who are up for it can also use the opportunity to learn with their child about the significance of Polynesian clothing, symbols, and the true story of Moana (That’s right, she’s an actual historical figure.).
After the film Moana was released, Disney created a Maui bodysuit for children to dress up in, complete with all of the body art. Some people argued that the body art held cultural meaning and that the suit was appropriating it, but others say that it’s Maui’s main recognisable trait and can ethically be worn by children who admire the character. Again, if possible, parents and their children should learn the significance of Polynesian body art. The problem with the costume, however, was that it was brown, and thus referenced blackface.
Finally, something that does not have the same reason of wearing a costume for the character or achievements is the ‘Call me Caitlyn’ costume, or the person formerly known as Bruce Jenner. She decided to go through a gender changing process, a very sensitive and modern topic that many people make fun of. This costume implies that transgender women are only men in drag, and is therefore harmful to transgender people. This type of halloween costume is an example on how disrespect and insensitivity can unfortunately shine through on Halloween.