We seem to be stuck in an era where culture is considered a “touchy subject.” Volunteering for my club’s bake sale on East Carolina University’s campus before Halloween, I stood for hours and watched a table next to me give away T-shirts stating, “My Culture is Not a Costume.” Initially I was extremely annoyed by these people.
I remember thinking to myself, people take things way too seriously nowadays. I even had a conversation with my Mexican friend who was standing next to me agreeing that they were going too far. “If someone dressed in traditional Mexican attire for Halloween, I would be honored, not offended,” she said. Hearing this from her only reaffirmed my opinion and I proceeded to think about my own Halloween costume, knowing that I, too, would probably dress up as some other type of culture.
However, recent events are forcing me to think twice. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be Halloween for people to pretend to be part of another culture. Elizabeth Warren claims to be Native American every day, or at least on the days when it’s more convenient for her. But I have to ask: What makes her Native American?
Does she speak Tsalagi? Does she know what tear dresses are? Can she make marbles?
Culture is learned behavior. One does not become a part of a culture simply because they share the same blood from other people in that culture. One becomes part of a culture by learning its traditions, lifestyles, spiritual rituals, initiations and more. Therefore, while genetics play some role, one’s genetics does not define their culture.
My ideas on cultural appropriation have changed significantly since watching Warren parade around as something she’s not. Native Americans have been exploited for the past 600 years: exposed to diseases, restricted from their traditional lifestyles, and confined to reservations. And now, a privileged white woman claims to be one of them, claims to identify with their culture and sufferings, to advance her career.
Therefore, I will no longer promote using someone else’s culture as a Halloween costume. Being an anthropology major, I enjoy celebrating other people’s cultures and have never understood what the big deal is. But it is a big deal. By pretending to be another person, one is mocking their very humanity. One makes light of their beliefs, their lifestyles, their hardships and so much more.