Written by Bhabika Joshi.
In the commotion that surrounds events like Halloween or Austin City Limits – where it’s easy to get distracted by Young The Giant, Flume, and a chicken burrito from Freebird’s—certain things go unnoticed. There are boys with bindis on their foreheads and girls with Indian feathers adorning their bodies. There are couples painting their faces black and groups of teenagers donning fashionable kimonos. During events like these, when some form of costumery is the norm, cultural appreciation—something to be celebrated in both America and our own university—is easily confused with cultural appropriation.
At UT, for example, the Indian Cultural Association often hosts mango lassi sales and henna booths. Campus Events + Entertainment, an organization on campus has multiple cultural branches: African American Culture, Asian American Culture, and Mexican American Culture. These committees host programs on campus and bring in distinguished guest speakers respective to their cultures. The open environment at UT promotes these cultural exchanges.
However, sometimes the line between appropriation and appreciation gets blurry, and people behave in hurtful or insensitive ways. While attending Diwali celebrations on campus does not necessarily appropriate someone’s culture, wearing a bindi without reason is an appropriation of someone’s culture.
Even Austin, a city that is generally considered accepting and open, is home to events like “The Color Run.” This event is directly appropriative of the South Asian holiday “Holi,” where attendees throw colors at each other to celebrate the new spring season. In a similar fashion, attendees of Austin City Limits tattoo henna on their hands and wear shirts with a booming “Om,” but fail to acknowledge the religious and cultural significance behind these actions.
Another example of cultural appropriation is the common occurrence of students in blackface on college campuses.
Graduate student Ajhanai Newton commented that, as a Black American, it is hard to believe that “instances of blackface continue to resurface.” Though “higher education is deemed the one place where the future intellectuals of society are supposed to gather and develop as one in order to better society,” Newton has realized that “college [harbors]…racial damning and racial ridicule.”
When non-black students wash off their paint, they erase the struggles of the black community who cannot do the same. Blackface belittles years of oppression faced by the black community.
UT Alumni Isha Mittal also spoke about the injustice in people misusing parts of her culture, “without even knowing where [such] things come from and what they symbolize.” She recounted instances in her life where people have described her temples as “noisy and obnoxious” and her food as “disgusting” and her culture as “primitive,” all the while appropriating certain aspects of her culture that they approve of.
With ACL just behind us and Halloween up ahead, reminders about cultural appropriation are necessary to keep in mind. There are easy alternatives to culturally distasteful Halloween costumes. One can dress up as a beloved character from television or film, an abstract and clever pun, or even a silly animal. There are many ways to celebrate Halloween under an umbrella of inclusivity and awareness.
The difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation includes taking the time to find out why certain artifacts are meaningful to a group of people and using this knowledge to stop appropriation. Newton stated that, by pursuing a future in student affairs, she hopes to eventually “educate the future generation, when the future generation has tendencies of America’s despicable past.” As UT students navigate future festivals, parties, and holidays, it is important to respect other cultures and identities and select costumes that are neither attacking nor condemning.
Featured image by: Melissa Lynn Amling