A man with brown skin is wearing a sombrero at a Halloween party, he has brown eyes and black hair. However, with a closer look, the man is not Mexican; he is of Ecuadorian descent. If we dig even deeper into his background, we will find out that he grew up in a predominately white neighborhood. He is not even a native Spanish speaker, his Spanish is at an intermediate level at best. He is far removed from Mexican culture.
That was a description of myself, as I mulled over a possible halloween costume scenario for this Oct. 31. Although this scenario sounds like a casual Halloween costume, many argue that this is one example of cultural appropriation. It is possible that this could be cultural appropriation due to the fact that I have no Mexican ancestry and my idea of Mexican culture is skewed by Tex-Mex restaurants. However, although I may be able to pass with a Sombrero this Oct. 31 because of my dark skin color, my whiter-skinned friends need to choose their Halloween attire carefully — or else they run the risk of being accused of being culturally insensitive.
An example of students being punished unfairly for cultural appropriation was when a handful of students at Bowdoin College in Maine, threw an “offensive” party earlier this year. For background, it was a “tequila” themed party organized by two student government members. The organizers’ goals were to bring together students from across campus for the night and, going along with the tequila theme, many party-goers were wearing mini sombreros. Unfortunately, other Bowdoin College students and faculty reacted negatively, and the university took action. The students responsible for the organization of the party were eventually impeached from their student government positions.
The incident at Bowdoin College is not an isolated or unique incident. Punishment for cultural appropriation has occured time and time again across the country. Our changing ideas on how we draw the line between “cultural exchange” and “cultural appropriation” present a gray area, at best. How we react and handle these events is imperative to creating a campus community that is strong, beautiful and provides opportunities to experience our differences in constructive ways.
On the other side of the cultural appropriation debate, an author named Lionel Shriver delivered a sobering analysis of the Bowdoin College incident during her speech at the Brisbane Book Festival. Her main argument for cultural appropriation is that we lose the ability to “try on other people’s hats,” because “any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch.”
Though her speech has been called “controversial” it raises the issue about our sudden shift towards safe-guarding our traditions, customs and experiences from outsiders who want to participate. Shriver’s most impactful point is how we are slowly losing our tradition of trying on other culture’s hats — figuratively speaking.
What we define as appropriate participation in a culture is difficult to distinguish. On campus, the best form of participation in Mexican culture, for example, would be to go to the Mills International Center. On the other hand, wearing a sombrero to a Halloween party is not the best form of cultural exchange. However, it is important to note that any form of cultural exchange opens the door for some level of conversation — even if cultures are exchanged in less appropriate and desirable ways. Although some of these Halloween costumes are put on in a mocking way and come with hurtful intentions, we often dismiss this mimicry as a form of hostility and not as a genuine form of flattery.
Even though some individuals use cultural appropriation as an excuse to be disrespectful, does that mean we should completely shut down lower forms of cultural exchange?
In an ideal world, people would learn the history, customs and small intricacies of other cultures, as well as open up and share their own cultures with others. Unfortunately, we live far from a world like that. It is imperative that our campus community does not criminalize cultural exchange. If we continue to accuse each other of cultural appropriation, we will drive the multitude of different cultures on campus apart from each other.
With that in mind, I think I’m leaning towards wearing a sombrero this Halloween and learning a few things about Mexican culture — and besides, a sombrero might be a great conversation starter.
Sonja Rasmussen coordinator of the Mills International Center, submitted this note on Oct. 13:
I appreciate the shout-out to the Mills International Center by Mateo Sundberg in Thursday October 13’s ODE. At the same time, it’s important to clarify that the Mills makes no claims to present or represent Mexican culture. We do have some fine resources for information about Mexico, and other countries around the world — cookbooks, travel books, culture books, language circles for informal language practice — that many students actively use. The Mills Center strives to be a place where all humans and all cultures are welcomed, valued, and respected. All UO students, US American and international, can meet the world here.