Cultural appropriation: a scary reminder of historical prejudice

blurrrrrrIMG_0295By Gabby Rente

Lifestyle Editor

October is one of my favorite times of the year. I get so excited to dress up in costumes and express my creativity through spooky make-up and decorations.

I remember in high school, just before October rolled around, we would have spirit week, ending with our homecoming football game and dance. Each day of spirit week had a different theme. In my junior year, on the day themed “Throwback Thursday,” I showed up to school dressed as a “gypsy.” I had a scarf wrapped around my head and shook a tambourine and danced around the hallways. 

This was cultural appropriation.

As obvious as it should be in this day and age, cultural appropriation is not as evident to people as it should be. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, cultural appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

“Gypsy” is actually a slur used against the Romani, Europe’s largest ethnic minority; and no, I do not mean Romanian. The Romani emigrated from Northwest India, and white Europeans called them “gypsies,” thinking they originated from Egypt based on their darker features. 

I am not of Romani origin. 

According to the National Organization for Women, “Romani have a history of persecution in Europe; it is estimated by Roma historians that over 70 to 80 percent of the Romani population was murdered in the Holocaust, a fact that is little known or recognized. Even lesser known, Romani experienced chattel slavery in Romania for over 500 years ending in 1860.”

My costume was supporting a stereotype that has been used to mock and oppress Romani people for hundreds of years. 

Although I can’t go back in time to fix my mistake, here is what I could have done to avoid making it in the first place. 

Obviously, the best and easiest solution would have been to not dress up as an appropriation of Romani culture. 

But there is a difference between appropriation and appreciation. 

Cosplayers face this criticism often. As many arrive to ComicCon dressed as characters from anime, people question whether or not they are appropriating Japanese culture. 

Since professional cosplayers are picking a specific character and using other traits besides their race to emulate that character, then it is a form of appreciation. I guarantee that if you ask that cosplayer for their character’s story, they will be able to tell you everything, and with much passion, too.  

So if I had dressed up as a character or historical figure by selecting traits other than those associated with a harmful stereotype, then I could have narrowly avoided the mistake. 

But I could not have picked Esmeralda from the Disney movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” because that movie is based off of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, and both support the harmful romanticized and over-sexualized image that we associate with Romani women. 

I could have done my research on historical Romani figures and gone as one of them to show appreciation for their contribution to human history. There are so many amazing Romani women writers I could have read and researched, like Papusza, Olga Pankova, or even Nina Dudarov. 

But I didn’t.

Now, this is not me saying that it’s okay for a white person to dress as Diana Ross for Halloween. Please, do not. If a costume requires you to change your skin tone to emulate someone from a different race or culture, do not do it. 

Susan Scafidi, founder and director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, School of Law, summarized the harm of blackface perfectly on a segment on cultural appropriation from CBSN.  

“It’s not just trying to look like someone else, it is a whole history of minstrelsy and stereotyping with all of the worst possible stereotypes: of ignorance, and criminality, and laziness, and things like that that go into depicting a whole race of people as somehow less than,” she said. “And it is that history that comes into play when we see blackface used at Halloween. It’s all of that negativity that comes back to haunt us.”

This is why “whiteface” isn’t a thing. The history isn’t there like it is for blackface.

Other examples would be if you wanted to go as a sugar skull from the Central American holiday Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Don’t just go as a sugar skull. Take the time to research the holiday and its significance. Watch the movie “Coco” and ask yourself why this holiday is important as you research character costumes… and then cry your eyes out because it’s a heart-wrenching movie. 

If you think your costume is supporting a harmful stereotype, then don’t wear that costume. And if you do want to go as a character or figure from a race other than your own, then find out what makes that them unique from everyone else. Look beyond the stereotypes and find the incredible person underneath. 

As for this Halloween, I plan on dressing up as Megara from the Disney movie “Hercules.” Yes, I understand that the movie is greatly different from the original Greek mythology, and yes, I can tell you all about it, too. 

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