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Panel talks cultural appropriation, Halloween costumes

| Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Student groups gathered Tuesday to host “My Culture is Not Your Costume,” a panel about cultural appropriation on Halloween. The organizations sponsoring the event included the Black Student Association, Latino Student Alliance, Asian American Association, Native American Student Association, African Students Association, Jewish Club and Dome-ish. Four students shared their experiences and opinions, mentioning costumes such as blackface and kimonos.

Zixu Wang | The Observer

On Tuesday, student organizations hosted “My Culture is Not Your Costume” to discuss cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes.

“We host this event to provide information of minority group’s culture, such as costume’s meanings and relations to the culture, and whether it would be offensive if you put it on,” senior Morgan Lumpkin, vice president of Notre Dame’s Black Student Association, said.

While generally recognizing respecting other cultures, the essential question is how to draw the line between “cultural appreciation” and “cultural appropriation,” Lumpkin said.

”It’s hard to draw a universal line while it should be different in multiple cases of diverse cultures,” she said. “It usually depends on the people who belong to that culture, so why don’t you ask them, saying ‘Hey can I wear it as a costume on Halloween?’”

Law school student Lauren LeVan, who was born in the United States to a mother from the Philippines and a father from Laos, said while some people wear costumes derived from a particular culture as a fantasy, those who are of that culture can find it unfair and disrespectful.

“Some costumes have a special link to culture and identity, and it’s offensive when someone who has no relation to or no knowledge of a culture just interjects,” she said.

For LeVan, “fantasizing” is the line when it comes to offending.

“The rice paddy hat has it’s own function and cultural relation to ancient agricultural civilization,” she said. ”If someone wears it out of context, like on Halloween, I will be uncomfortable. If you even do the fake Asian accent … you are mocking and putting damaging portraits or stigmas on Asians, and I will totally get upset and offended.”

LeVan said stances like this can be seen as too sensitive, but her feelings remain unchanged.

“Maybe it is sensitive but it’s not your place to tell me how to feel. If you’re offending me, you are offending me,” she said. “Halloween is an occasion of creativity. Why would you do something which could be offensive when you could do something more interesting and entertaining?”

Cultural appropriation has implications of racial tensions and power, LeVan said.

“There is a systematic unbalance [of] power between majority and minority groups,” LeVan said. “Minorities always think of what is suitable and how to act in social situations [as it] corresponds to surroundings. But I don’t think the majority [ethnicity] have this concern. … It’s kinda painful. That’s why in Halloween it’s important to make everyone equally show concerns to others.”

However, since last year, there have been disputes about the event.

“Some people accused us of killing Halloween, but we really don’t want to downplay it,” Lumpkin said. “People have [the] freedom to dress how they want, but we also don’t want people to walk into a party and get upset by others’ costumes.”

Lumpkin said the goal of the event was not to judge people, but rather discuss ways people can make more respectful and thoughtful costume choices.

“You don’t need to be offensive to be funny,” she said.

Some faculty members also sent reminders about Halloween costumes and respect for other cultures. On Monday, Diversity and Inclusion of Notre Dame Law School sent an email to all law school students stating, “[We] would like to take a moment to remind everyone to be respectful of the faith, culture and identity of others. Problems can be avoided by simply caring about the way your actions make other people feel.”

Justin North, a law student who works in Diversity and Inclusion, said he believes it is possible to celebrate and respect a culture by wearing costumes.

”Our nation has long been a melting pot of cultures and is significantly better for it, and there is a significant amount of nuance necessary to balance the good of diversity with the power imbalance between cultures,” he said. “As for me, the costume wearer’s intention and knowledge of the culture they are representing decides whether it is cultural appropriation, but it may not be possible to display appropriate levels of respect and understanding for a culture. Meanwhile, I have no idea where others might draw the line and take offense, so I advise making sure you are informed about the costume choices you make and are able to explain your actions.”

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