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

Does this costume make me look racist?

by: MSC Communications Intern, Ashley Reum

This post was inspired by the Wisconsin Black Student Union, the Filipino American Student Organization, and Sex Out Loud who are hosting the Monster’s Ball, a Halloween party held in Tripp Commons from 9pm-12:30am on October 25th, 2013. The event aims to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students, especially students of color. Goodies such as candy and condoms will be passed out and admission is free. In order to attend, they only ask that your costume is appropriate.

Growing up, I loved everything about Halloween. Not only did I get to collect bags full of free candy from my neighbors, I got to dress up and pretend to be someone else for a night. Throughout my adolescence I embodied a princess, a witch, a power ranger and a variety of other costumes my grandmother tailored for me and my siblings. It wasn’t until I got to college that I noticed the racism and ignorance that often comes with inappropriate Halloween costumes. I became very bitter towards the holiday I used to love. I grew tired of seeing these same offensive and insensitive costumes every year and categorized them all as racist.

Images from:, and Google searches of Mexican halloween costumes

Images from:, and Google searches of Mexican halloween costumes

However, the assumptions I made were just as ignorant as the inappropriate costumes I would see on Halloween. It’s very easy to call someone racist based on my own perceptions. We see their attire and automatically assume they’ve made an informed decision to wear an offensive costume. In order to create awareness, we need to understand not everyone has the same background and experiences. For some students, UW is the most diversity they have ever seen. Instead of labeling these people as racist, we could deconstruct why their costume is racist, and how we can express that message in a safe space.

The hard part isn’t thinking someone’s costume is racist or insensitive. It’s knowing exactly why it’s offensive. I’ve sorted inappropriate costumes into three general categories to act as guidelines for understanding why a costume might be seen as racist.

1. Costumes that appropriate a culture. These are costumes that pull inspiration from cultures without knowing what it means. A very common example is sugar skull face painting. Although the painting may look authentic, they are taking a tradition from people who celebrate Dia De Los Muertos without knowing what it means.

2. Romanticizing a culture. This is seen in “poca-hottie,” gypsy, belly dancer, and geisha costumes. They are over-sexualized and their perceived lifestyle is fantasized. However, many of these costumes have ties to oppression, rape and genocide.

3. Stereotyping. The Mariachi, the Kimono princess and the kung fu master all strip down a culture and emphasize and exaggerate one characteristic. This perpetuates the idea that this is the entirety of their culture. Another costume to pay attention to are ones that attach an ethnicity or a symbol of one’s culture to negative stereotype. This is evident in suicide bomber costumes that have keffiyehs. This attaches a Middle Eastern tradition with the stigma of terrorism.


Image from:

These categories act as guidelines and the deconstruction and analysis of costumes are not limited by them. Before we point fingers this Halloween, remember many students might not know the implications of their costume. A student group at Ohio University created a powerful campaign to illustrate “we’re a culture, not a costume.”  These posters can also serve as guidelines as to whether a Halloween costume might offend someone.  For the rest of the month, these posters will also be hung throughout the Multicultural Student Center and other Red Gym offices.

For more interesting takes on insensitive Halloween costumes, check out the links below:

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