Cultural Appropriation, Appreciation and Exchange…What does it all mean?

by MSC Student Life Intern, Daisy

As a person of color and an aspiring fashion designer I get asked a lot about cultural appropriation in everyday life, Halloween, and in fashion. Cultural appropriation can be very confusing, especially when trying to distinguish it from cultural exchange and appreciation.

To start of lets define some terms:

As a Mexican American, I have seen people paint their faces as sugar skulls and wear sombreros and ponchos on Halloween while yelling out “I’m Illegal, deport me!” While these may be very obvious and blatantly racist and disrespectful forms of cultural appropriation, other forms of cultural appropriation are not as easy for people to identify and understand.


Cultural appropriation is harmful because it perpetuates stereotypes, exercises modern day imperialism by treating other cultures as something that can be taken and commoditized, exotifies cultures, disrespects and steals from minority and marginalized groups.

A helpful way to look at this may be to call it social plagiarism. We all know that it is not okay to take something that is not yours when it comes to academia. Why should it be any different when it comes to cultures? It is important to do your research and credit where something comes from.

I often get questioned on why it is okay for people to wear French berets as a fashion statement and not a Native Headdress to a music festival or a Mexican sombrero to a drinking party. Or why is it okay for people of color to wear jeans and suits but not okay for people of privilege to sport box braids and “ghetto fab” clothing.

Cultural appropriation involves a dominant majority culture taking something from a marginalized group. This often has a double standard attached to it as well; for example how is it that when someone of privilege sports dreadlocks or gelled down baby hairs because they think it is cool are viewed as edgy and hip whereas someone part of the culture is be seen as “ghetto” or unprofessional.

It is also important to realize that in many cases of cultural appropriation all that is stolen is the pretty and aesthetically pleasing aspects of it. For example, when someone wears a geisha costume (like Katy Perry in her 2013 AMA performance) and uses it as a costume or prop, all cultural significance and meaning is stripped away. But it is so beautiful, what is wrong with appreciating its beauty and wanting to wear it? The problem here is that while Katy Perry may look beautiful, at the end of the day, she gets to take off the costume and does not have to deal with the stereotype and exoticism she just reinforced.

click the image to read more about Katy Perry’s culturally appropriative VMA’s performance.

A culture is not a prop, it is not something to be taken and altered for your pleasure, it is not something to wear for personal expression because you think it is cool, it is not a fashion statement.

For more literature on understanding cultural appropriation read this zine, Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation

Happy Halloween!

Planning creative costumes for Halloween can be tough. As a college student, you might find that your funds can’t stand putting down $40-$60 on a costume from the stores and the last thing you want to do is be that person who utilizes every fluorescent colored article of clothing to be an 80’s icon–AGAIN. You also might find that some of the costumes that you see on the street are highly offensive cultural appropriations, such as those who dress up as “Indians”, “Geishas”, or trying to or even put on black face to be their “favorite hip hop rapper.”

On the opposite end, where are the cool costumes inspired by social justice activists across different movements? For our awesome student activists, here are some historical leaders to aspire towards this Halloween. You can quickly create some iconic looks using your own closet (or retrofitted goodies!) for an economically and socially sound Halloween.

*Note: This is a very, very brief list that is not representative of all identities! We invite you to share with us your Halloween costumes inspired by the incredible men, women, and genderqueer activists of color who are doing work in different movements. 

America Ferrera as Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta: Labor leader and civil rights activist co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (now United Farm Workers) alongside César Chávez.

What you need: High-waisted jeans, an old pull over sweater, button down shirt to tie at the waist, combat boots

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm: Politician, educator, author, and Congresswoman representing New York’s 12th Congressional District for seven terms!!

What you need: Patterned button down blouse, big framed glasses, business skirt, big chunky earrings

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart: First person to fly across the Atlantic solo!

What you need: leather jacket, white scarf (or patterned silk scarf tied in a bow around your neck), jeans or a romper, aviator sunglasses

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells19th century anti-lynching activist, journalist, teacher, women’s rights activist, and co-founder of the NAACP.

What you need: maxi skirt, blouse with frilly collar, a brooch, large over-the-top hat, and a newspaper

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo: Mexican painter best known for her self-portraits. Her work has been “celebrated in Mexico as emblematic of national and indigenous tradition, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.”

What you need: floral hair accessories, red shawl, white lacy top, big and colorful jewelry, black eyeliner

Have a safe and fun Halloween! Eat lots of candy (and we know you are, because our MSC candy bowl is running low today 🙂

Written and compiled with the help of Barbara Gonzalez, MSC Greek Affairs Specialist Intern