Around Halloween, our campus was buzzing with the crucial question that plagued everyone the entire month of October: What will my Halloween costume be? As these conversations went on, posters were also put up throughout dorms and common areas suggesting how to avoid cultural appropriation with costumes. While I assumed that costumes that feed into blatant stereotypes are no longer a consideration, I have seen a handful of costumes on social media that do this, including people wearing “Indian” headdresses and dressed as Japanese geishas.
My stomach drops every time I see those costumes and I always ask myself: Why? Coming from a South Korean background, I have never seen a costume mimicking my culture. I have even showed pictures of “Asian” costumes to my family whom were natively born in Japan and South Korea, and they didn’t find anything wrong with it. So, why am I so furious about something that has no direct relation to me? My anger stems from getting teased for my bento lunch boxes and my family members dressing up in traditional Korean garb when I was a kid, and now, years later, all the things I was teased for are a trend that everyone wants to take part in.
According to American poet Fatimah Asghar, “cultural appropriation occurs when members of a dominant group take elements and symbols of another culture for their own economic or social gain while simultaneously devaluing and silencing the bodies, opinions and voices of the oppressed culture.” This definition sets a standard and clear understanding as to the significance of cultural appropriation and what it means to various Americans. The disconnect between my family members born in East Asian countries and me, who grew up in the United States, reflects upon the dichotomy of how cultural appropriation is received among people of color. However, this difference should not be a justification for acts of cultural appropriation as the standard of disrespect is dictated from historical inequalities and not the opinions of any non-white person.
In 2018, a high school senior wore a traditional Chinese qipao to prom, stirring controversy on Twitter and resulting in backlash. However, she also received a lot of support from natives in East Asia. Hong Kong cultural commentator Zhou Yijun is quoted in The New York Times saying “it’s ridiculous to criticize this (the prom dress) as cultural appropriation. From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a qipao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?” Most of the people who were offended were people who identified as Asian Americans and those with cross-national identities.
Evidently, not all people of color recognize cultural appropriation in the same light as others. For example, East Asian countries that extend to — but aren’t limited to — China, Japan and South Korea have had instances of blackface on national television. Adored K-Pop groups have acclaimed to get “away with cultural appropriation” as they draw much of their inspiration from Motown bands. The difference between East Asian and American cultural appropriation of Black culture comes to a disconnect in awareness. East Asia is far more racially homogeneous, and thus certain stereotypes about Black culture and African Americans persist, explaining the inappropriate instances of blackface and mockery. The U.S. on the other hand is a country that has a more diverse population, and while ignorance may be the case for certain acts of cultural appropriation, the country also has a horrific history with how minority groups have been treated.
This could be one way why cultural appropriation is arguably more of a prevalent issue in the U.S. as it is because of our historical context and systemic oppression that is unique to the country. Black Americans have historically been exploited and victimized by institutions. Professor Mia Moody-Ramirez, director of graduate studies at Baylor University, emphasizes how costumes that involve blackface go back to minstrel shows in the 1800s, where white Americans appropriated African American culture for profit. It now perpetuates ill-mannered stereotypes of being “lazy, unintelligent and criminal in nature.” These historical events that continue to affect these minority groups shouldn’t be mocked or mimicked, as many inappropriate costumes perpetuate negative stereotypes and gloss over the prevailing issues they encounter.
It is integral to note that cultural appropriation can be inappropriate and rightfully offend certain marginalized groups. The weight of cultural appropriation and why it is inappropriate and disrespectful is dependent upon the history of America. So, while there remains a mixed reaction from different people of color, and further obfuscates why certain people of color get offended, an important variable to keep in mind is the context of what is being appropriated and what the bigger picture looks like.
Cheryn Hong can be reached at email@example.com.