Letter from the Editor: Minimizing cultural appropriation begins with discussion, education

Baro Editor-in-Chief Lauren Sluss stands outside of the Student Experience Center. 

Lauren Sluss, Editor-in-Chief

Over the past week, the Baro has engaged in multiple discussions about ways to participate in Halloween celebrations safely. However, there is one important aspect of Halloween in which we have not discussed: how to participate in Halloween appropriately. Namely, the discussion of cultural appropriation.

Before I begin, I must inform you that I have faced several insecurities while considering to write this piece. I am a member of a historically-privileged community. I identify as a white, straight and able-bodied female who comes from a middle-class family. My cultural identity and lack of personal experience with cultural appropriation makes me feel insecure while discussing it. Yes, I have taken trainings and have had conversations around cultural appropriation. But I have never experienced pain or discomfort from seeing someone else appropriate my culture.

However, despite my lack of personal experience, I still feel strongly towards this discussion. Therefore, I have decided to provide you with my thoughts and feelings towards this topic, not as an expert, but as a white woman.

I have found the most common definition of cultural appropriation to run something like this: the act of dominant cultures co-opting aspects of marginalized cultures while neglecting that aspect’s cultural significance.

Examples of cultural appropriation have been portrayed through media. When pop singer Selena Gomez debuted her hit song “Come and Get It”, she donned a bindi, a red dot worn on the center of the forehead commonly by Hindu and Jain women. Traditionally, a bindi represents the sixth chakra and is said to retain energy and strengthen concentration. However, Gomez’s intention was not to represent the sixth chakra, but instead to create a “Hindu, tribal feel,” as she stated after her debut.

 Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, released a statement in which he expressed his frustration towards Gomez’s actions.

“The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance…it was not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed,” Zed said.

Cultural appropriation does not just take place in the mainstream media, however. It takes place in our day to day lives. This conversation is constant, but is in particular brought up during Halloween. Halloween is a time to dress up in a costume that is out of the ordinary, is funny or is scary. Often times people morph into fantasy characters, commonly-known figures or childhood nightmares during the night of spooky celebration.

Too often, however, people use this time to take an aspect out of another person’s culture and wear it as a costume.

Taking a facet from a culture out of context for a costume is not “appreciating” that culture. By doing so, you are stripping that facet of its cultural significance—deeming it to be funny, unusual, or even scary, as Halloween costumes often are.

Oregon State University’s core values surround topics of inclusion, understanding and respect. We are home to seven cultural resource centers, each highlighting and celebrating communities represented on campus. For us, as privileged community members, to be engaged in an organization which strives for mutual respect, to then turn around and demean our fellow students’ cultures is not just ignorant—it’s wrong.

Recognizing the need to educate ourselves in order to appreciate different cultures is the first step towards minimizing cultural appropriation.

It is not my intention to tell you what you can and cannot do. I’m not here to shame you out of wearing or enjoying certain things. Creating societal change doesn’t stem from pedantic lecturing. It comes with mutual education and understanding in order to work towards a common goal.

I am here, however, to hopefully give you a second thought about your costume tonight. If you yourself are not offended by your costume, recognize that is your privilege to not be offended. Not everyone carries that same privilege.

It is up to all people, regardless of identity, to take steps towards creating an inclusive environment. This is not an overnight process. Working towards social equality is iterative and constant.

I would encourage you to not only reevaluate your costume for tonight, but to also take a look around. If you see something that strikes you as having the potential to be offensive to a certain culture, recognize that the person wearing that costume is most likely not coming from a place on mal intent. They are coming from a place of misunderstanding and misinformation. I encourage you to work with that person where they are at; recognizing that starting a dialogue around this topic is the first step in minimizing harm caused by cultural appropriation.

Societal change isn’t going to take place if privileged groups never speak up. It is not solely the job of marginalized communities to fight for equality for themselves. It is up to all people, no matter privilege or identity, to fight for equality.  

I would encourage you to do your own research about this topic. Several efforts on the OSU campus are underway to raise awareness around cultural appropriation, such as Student Affairs campaigns and the “My Culture is Not a Costume” events organized by UHDS Community Relations Facilitators.

OSU community members are making efforts to bring this conversation to campus and minimize cultural appropriation. It’s time for all people, regardless of identity, to join in.