Opinion: With Halloween approaching, there is a fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation

Illustration by Sammy Newman

Tagwa Shammet, Opinions Editor

Spooky season is upon us. It’s time to trick or treat, time to carve out some pumpkins, time to get your spookiest decorations up. But most importantly, it’s time to get dressed up as our favorite characters and concepts. So, as you plan which costume you’ll be showcasing this year, please remember: I am not your Halloween costume.

I’m sure some of you are reading this piece thinking, “Oh come on, blackface doesn’t happen anymore.” Tell that to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northan or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who obviously didn’t get the memo. 

Listen, I get the hype around wanting to be black. I love being black. I get to dress up as Penny Proud, Beyonce, TLC, a Clover and so many other black artists and characters. Let me clue you in on a little secret: You can also be all of those characters — without the blackface. I was once Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.” Did you see me with baby powder on my face? No, because that would be unbelievably offensive. Obviously, black people are extending the white population a courtesy that’s not reciprocated. 

Halloween is all about dressing up and enjoying the sweetness and spookiness. But there is a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. And some of you have majorly overstepped the bounds. 

In case some of you are still confused; blackface has been and will always be offensive. Asking, “What’s the big deal?” when you see someone with blackface is not an acceptable response. It’s not just a costume, it’s not just you painting your face a darker shade. It’s wildly racist. The root of blackface is historically hateful and derogatory. 

Blackface was first created in the theatrical world when white actors painted their faces black to depict slaves in events called minstrel acts. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, these depictions showcased black people as “lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual.” I’m sure these performances were a hoot and a holler for white audience members, but for black people, they’re disrespectfully dehumanizing. 

Halloweekend on college campuses is a huge deal. Dressing up and partying with your friends is an exciting concept. However, because parties encourage outrageous costumes, nobody really calls out offensive costumes. The New York Times wrote that Greek life has always been a common setting for blackface and appropriation due to its segregative nature. Well, being a bystander is no longer in. If you see something, say something. Staying quiet makes you just as complicit as the perpetrator. Call out your friends straight up. Beating around the bush just continues the disrespect.

Maybe your excuse for your racism is ignorance. I hate to break it to you, but ignorance isn’t an excuse here. You can’t “I didn’t know” your way out of coloring your face black. What exactly didn’t you know? You didn’t know that blackface is racist? You didn’t know by painting your face black that you’ve perpetrated offensive stereotypes? You didn’t know how to appreciate a culture without appropriating it?

You cannot plead ignorance any time it’s convenient. I’ll let the “ignorance” excuse slide, I’ll allow you the privilege of educating you out of the darkness. However, as I said before, your pleading of ignorance is rejected completely here.

To some of you, this story doesn’t apply. But, to those of you who thought that painting your face black was a worthwhile concept, your ignorance is a direct tie to your racism.

Unfortunately, blackface isn’t the only infamous form of offensive appropriation during Halloween. Putting feathers on your head doesn’t make you a “Native American,” just like wearing a sombrero doesn’t make you a “Mexican.”

“Let’s be clear: Culture is not a costume.” — Tagwa Shammet.

All of these inappropriate actions stem from racial biases. The more frequently you get checked on those issues, the less often it happens. However, it’s not up to someone else to put you in your place. You are responsible for yourself and your actions. Therefore, do not blame your friends of the particular culture you’re appropriating for not calling you out on your actions. It’s nobody’s fault but your own.

Some of you would prefer to not be bystanders but lack the confrontational skills to call someone out. Here are a few ideas I have for you:

  • One option is to suggest that the costume be slightly tweaked to avoid offense.

  • A more evolutionary solution would be — if you’re willing — to educate on the dangers of cultural appropriation, as well as to ensure they never cross the line again. (While I am a fan of furthering the knowledge of others, I’m not the biggest fan of this solution because, like I stated above, individuals are responsible for their actions.)

  • And finally, the simpler, the better. The easiest solution is to just tell the person to remove the costume on the basis of it being offensive.

This isn’t a matter of political correctness nor social sensitivity; this is a matter of respect. If you find yourself being called out for appropriation, you may lack respect for all cultures offended during the process. 

Halloween is an experience for people of all ages. For college students, it’s the perfect time to get all kinds of spooky with friends. VCU is a beautifully diverse campus. We pride ourselves on the different cultures and ethnicities that flood these Richmond streets. Please make sure you’re not the one turning this Halloween into a nightmare. So, as you find the perfect costume, remember: I am not your Halloween costume. 

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