Stop Wearing My Clothes

 

Harini Narayan Educating yourself and being yourself: the dangers of cultural appropriation by Harini, a student intern. 

I was the only brown kid at my school until ninth grade. Growing up in a town I once described as “never realized the Union won the Civil War,” it was no surprise that all my friends were white. I was careful to conceal any aspects of me that did not mirror their own personalities, effectively whitewashing myself. I laughed along with their mockery of desi culture, its gaudy outfits and pungent foods, all the while ignoring the guilt and defiance that part of me felt at hearing my own culture ripped apart by people who had none of their own.

Once I reached high school and began making friends with people from similar backgrounds to me, I realized the error in my ways and embraced my heritage with a group of people who respected and shared my culture. I packed the foods I liked to school, and posted pictures of me, donned in traditional clothes, to social media for the world to see.

Around that time, American culture began to shift. Suddenly, the ingredients in our foods that were once considered ugly and smelly were now labelled “superfoods,” and they were all the rage. Our jewelry was considered the epitome of fashion, despite being practically taboo not too long ago. This led me to the question: why is something considered acceptable only after Western cultures adopt it? People have been wearing naths and eating turmeric for centuries, so why was it suddenly considered a trend? Moreover, why was it a trend to begin with, when the sole reason the elements of our culture exist with a meaning and value that was being completely disregarded by Western culture?

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Actress Sonam Kapoor wears a nath on the red carpet.

I grew angry each time I would see someone that once made fun of desi culture wearing bindis for Instagram. This was a piece of Hindu culture that was symbolic, and it was being reduced to a costume. For these people, this was an expression of appreciation, because apparently there was no better compliment to a culture than the validation of a westernized person. There was no consideration that disregarding the meaning behind these things (whether they are intended for brides, as a mark of celebration, etc.) was offensive.

However, white people are not the only ones guilty of doing this. Non-desi people of color often see their non-whiteness as a free pass to appropriating cultures outside their own. Desis are guilty of appropriating other cultures as well, so no ethnic group is entirely free of this offense. The entertainment industry is the worst offender, with a history of using blackface to depict villains and demons unscrupulously.

Of course, appreciation of a culture is acceptable. For example, eating ethnic food, consuming media, and learning a new language are all forms of appreciation that are inoffensive.

When a person uses an element of a culture they do not belong to as a costume while ignoring the ethnic, national, or religious significance of said element, they are appropriating a culture. Appropriation is not just about material items. It can take different forms, like stealing opportunities that should belong to people of an ethnic group or religion. This is seen too often in Hollywood, with white actors playing roles that represent people of color, with (see Matt Damon playing a Chinese general in The Great Wall). White actors find themselves under fire for accepting roles depicting Asian characters that are heroic and central to the story, while actual Asian actors are too often offered minor roles that exist for comedic effect or to create a backdrop for the important white characters. The way in which the West regards Eastern culture is dubbed “Orientalism,” a concept that has come to possess a negative connotation only because it reflects said perception.

Furthermore, brown actors are used interchangeably, regardless of their ethnicity. A recent example of this is the casting for the live-action Aladdin movie, in which Naomi Scott, a biracial actress of Indian descent, is playing Jasmine, the princess of the fictional Agrabah, which is canonically located in the Middle East. So, why are brown people seen as transposable? Why is our culture regarded as easy?

Bridging the gap between Western ideals and pride in one’s heritage is in the hands of brown peoples’ white peers and the media. Looking back on my journey as a brown girl growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, I can see my growth from someone who tried too hard to imitate her white friends, to someone who is unashamed of who she is. Much of that personal development came from being receptive and open to criticism. Often, people don’t realize their actions are offensive because of how common appropriation is. Ignorance is a slippery slope, so being informed is vital, as is holding others accountable for their actions. Learning the difference between appreciation and appropriation is the first step to respecting all cultures and regarding them as equal.

 

Below are some articles about recent instances of brown culture appropriation and orientalism:

American Orientalism

What is Orientalism, and how is it also racism?

Gucci accused of culturally appropriating Sikh turban

People Are Seriously Pissed That “Vogue India” Got Kendall Jenner For Their 10-Year Anniversary Shoot

Coachella Queen Vanessa Hudgens Loves Cultural Appropriation

Zara comes under fire for cultural appropriation

In ‘The Problem With Apu,’ Hari Kondabolu Discusses South Asian Representation

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Halloween Costumes: Looking into the Haunted Mirror of Our Past

A collaborative authorship post from Bria Hamlet and Jess Myers

Jess:
You guessed it! It’s that time of the year when the Women’s Center staff crushes your Halloween costume dreams and makes you feel guilty about your costume decisions. Sexist! Racist! Cultural appropriation! We know, we’re just no fun… but someone’s gotta do it.

A Halloween costume that represented Jess' dreams of becoming the first female baseball player in Major League Baseball.

A Halloween costume that represented Jess’ dreams of becoming the first female baseball player in Major League Baseball.

But in all seriousness, this is an important conversation…. one that I wish I would have had with thoughtful intersectional feminists back in my growing up days. I didn’t know what cultural appropriation was in 3rd grade… or if I’m being honest, in college. Halloween costumes I regret include dressing as a Harem Girl and a nagging wife (ugh, just writing those words breaks my women’s center director heart) among others. I feel guilty about these choices and up until now, I’ve done my best to keep these secrets to myself but somewhere along the way these memories have been shared with Women’s Center staff members and together we’ve walked down memory lane of costumes of Halloween past. We’ve used these conversations as an opportunity for us to hold up the mirror for ourselves and others. We are not exempt from histories of making harmful choices in our Halloween gear. By allowing ourselves to look into the mirror of racism, sexism, and cultural appropriation, we hope to diffuse the guilt and defensive that often comes from having these conversations related to Halloween costumes of choice so we can all dig a bit deeper into that critical thought and dialogue.

Plus… what better way to share some of our childhood photos from Halloweens of the 1980s and 90s!

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Bria:
I was an angel, a princess, and a pink Power Ranger in pursuit of candy. Queen Amidala and Mulan searched for the most haunting home decor while Cleopatra and Tinkerbell prepared for horror movie marathons with friends. It all started out so harmless.

Yoo-Jin takes on the "tweeter" side of being a pirate!

Yoo-Jin takes on the “tweeter” side of being a pirate!

I have never taken the time to reflect on how the intent of celebrating Halloween changes from childhood to adulthood. Historically, All Hallows’ Eve has been about terrifying confrontations with the dead, but these days I have been aghast at the overpriced sexism on Party City’s walls. For just $49.99, you can please the patriarchy and unleash your inner sexist all in one night!

Halloween has become a night for adults to indulge in repressed fantasies through costume. I am cringing as I recall the year I decided to costume as Playboy Bunny (before I could even legally be one). I now believe that if this industry wasn’t so hellbent on supplying women with only “sexy” options for Halloween, then women everywhere could proudly say they wanted to dress like that, not that they were left optionless. It’s bad enough that women are oversexualized everyday, and this ‘tradition’ reinforces the idea that any effort put into appearing sexy is to please men. And thus, we welcome you to the Sexy Halloween Costume Industry!

Megan (on the left) with her Wonder Woman sister.

Megan (on the left) with her Wonder Woman sister.

I chose my own costumes and wore them happily. My only regret is the lack of thought I put into the message I sent to the rest of the world. While I hoped my sexy schoolgirl costume screamed “I am poking fun at my all-girl secondary education and embracing my sexuality all at one time!,” I know that was not the case. Truly feminist costumes should leave you feeling respected, empowered, and happy. Although I am still struggling to settle on a costume idea, I am pleased to have the awesome resources below for some feminist costuming inspiration! Check them out!

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What is cultural appropriation?

On Appropriation vs Appreciation
Costume Fails from @Chescaleigh
What Not to Wear on Halloween… a Stuff Mom Never Told You Podcast

Amelia's love for cats started early on....

Amelia’s love for cats started early on….

Daniel in his blue ant costume.

Daniel  as Flick, the blue ant!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get Creative!

Feminist Halloween Costumes – a Post from Feministing with so many other cool links
Women in History Halloween Costume Ideas
5 Feminist Halloween Costumes… a video from Stuff Mom Never Told You

Get your Activism On!

Halloween Liberation Kit
We’re a culture, not a costume
How to tell your friend they’re Halloween costume is racist

Oh hey RAs! A Halloween Bulletin Board at your finger tips!

 

It’s that time of year again! Halloween Costumes! by Narges Fekri Ershad, Student Staff

2004_10202146841581348_1327051636_nIt is that time of the year again! Pumpkins are out in the fields and costumes are back in the stores! It is the time of the year that people can wear anything, be anyone or any object and they won’t be judged!

While searching the internet I came across many points about Halloween that just shocked me! Did you know how much money Americans spend during Halloween? Americans spend between $6.5-6.86 billion dollars on costumes, candy, and decorations!

Fruit-Costumes-Sexy

On the other hand pictures of costumes was another “wow” experience for me, like always. During Halloween you can see many different costumes, many of which are problematic costumes. They can be sexist, culturally appropriative, and have many more problems — but most people think there is nothing is wrong with them!

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For the past several weeks I have been looking online and in magazines for Halloween costumes. Many of them have made me stop and think. Try it yourself, think of ANY object or character… search for it on Google and you can probably find the sexy version of it! Be a sexy carrot, a sexy watermelon, and of course, a sexy nurse!

It seems like sexy and offensive costumes are now the norm in our society. Halloween is that one day a year that people can be anyone and anything, with an emphasis on women being a sexual object, and most people will be fine with it!

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Have you ever thought of this? Have you ever thought that something might be wrong here? That maybe we need to rethink this issue, talk and think about it a little more?!

Come to the Women’s Center this Wednesday, October 23rd, during free hour and let’s talk about Halloween Costumes!