From childhood to adulthood: Simplest way to stop cultural appropriation

When imitation is more offensive than flattering

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Feb 16 · 5 min read
Photo credit: dlewisnash/Pixabay

My three favorite holidays are in this order: Veteran’s Day, Halloween, then Christmas. Veteran’s Day is both a federal holiday and an obvious favorite to those who know me: It’s my birthday. But Halloween makes me almost as happy. Although I have zip zero interest in “The Conners” and Roseanne Barr spoiled my enthusiasm for binge-watching the original version, the Conners are the only way to visualize how I decorate on October 31. And I’m never ever showing up to a Halloween party in “regular” clothes.

But after writing this post on cultural appropriation in marketing, I saw a predictable amount of people proclaiming there is no such thing as “cultural appropriation” and stating “imitation is the greatest form of flattery.” I can tell you with absolute certainty that it is not. One particular Halloween costume I wore proved that for me, and I had to learn that lesson in an unexpected way.

Out of countless costumes I wore for Halloween, one of my favorites had been my “Indian” costume. I had the moccasins, the feathers, the headdress and even clapped my hand over my mouth — straight up stereotypical. I was also a pre-teen who had zero experience with Native Americans. The likelihood of me sitting next to a Native American family in a restaurant or seeing them in any neighborhood mall around me was next to none, regardless of Chicago being the third largest city in the United States. In my mind, this costume was cool and “flattering.” My parents were just letting a kid be a kid. I can’t blame them for what they also viewed as a harmless costume at the time.

However, they are also the reason why my views on that costume changed over the years, starting with my high school graduation. By that time, I’d cut ties with the Girl Scouts of America after a five-year run in elementary school and freshman year. But my mother continued to be a Girl Scout leader, and my troop was taking a Black History trip from Chicago to Detroit to Toronto and Ontario. I couldn’t think of a better idea for a high school graduation gift, so I joined this girls’ trip with the leaders and scouts.

My pre-Drake trip consisted of a massive list of African-American history lessons, floating around in swimming pools, sitting on the rocks at night when Niagara Falls water changed colors, going to a couple outdoor malls and concerts, and realizing sitting in boats and smelling ocean water is not fun. And then our history-themed travel schedule lead us to meeting a Native American Girl Scout troop. It was the first time I’d seen a traditional pow-wow and met Native Americans. That costume I wore as a pre-teen kept popping into my head. While I watched various stages of the pow-wow performances and admired the costumes, I realized I didn’t know a damn thing I was wearing in my own costume, what it represented and why it was so offensive to wear it. In my young mind, it was just a cool costume.

Photo credit: tpsdave/Pixabay

By the time I got to college, I really was running into Native American families. As much as I detested Northern Michigan University (my first college before I transferred) and its lack of diversity, I joined a mentoring program that had a reasonable population of Native American students. We went camping (terrible idea considering this was the same year “The Blair Witch Project” released) and sat in a cabin talking about our diverse backgrounds. After the Girl Scout troop in Canada, I just wanted to learn more about a culture I knew nothing about. I talked at length with an older Native American man who was extremely easy on the eyes and even easier on my ears, even during tougher moments when he talked about his own experiences living on reservations.

Talking to him lead me to attending sports mascot protests to find out what the big deal was (I was not a sports fan), attending more pow-wows and hanging out on campus with a few native students. In a university that left much to be desired regarding multiculturalism, this was the one group that I would’ve probably never learned much about at my other college choices. I learned so much that I didn’t know about Native American people. But more importantly, I just got to know these people as people — not my idea of what they were like.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Oftentimes when people don’t understand cultural appropriation, they are ignorant of the people they’re copying. They see them on TV or photos and have a loose understanding of who this group is, but this particular group is almost always missing from their social circle. (You may see the “token” friend on special occasions or social media just to prove this person exists though.) Of course there’s more to a person than just their race or gender, but for those who proudly self-identify in that race or gender, it is extremely offensive to see someone who is not in that group step in like it’s OK to join in and (usually) take over.

While I won’t go as far as saying I regret wearing that Halloween costume as a kid — because it was definitely meant to be complimentary for what I naively thought was an intriguing outfit — there’s not enough money in the world to make me wear a costume even slightly similar to that as an adult. When you know better, you do better. For me to consciously know I’m appropriating someone else’s lifestyle, beliefs and culture and still shrug my shoulders at it would be shameful on my part. There are enough other costumes in the world and other ways to celebrate these groups than biting their styles.

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I Do See Color

“Seeing” color is no more a problem than “seeing” height.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

15-year vegetarian journalist/editor; part-time dog walker and dog sitter; Toastmasters member and 5x officer; WERQ dance and yoga enthusiast;

I Do See Color

We are not ashamed of our melanin, and we know you “see” it. Just don’t discriminate and disrespect us because of it.

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