The crackdown on offensive and culturally appropriating Halloween costumes continues across the country. Some of us have objected over the free speech concerns raised by these actions. However, those concerns appear lost on most students. According to a recent poll by The College Pulse, most students reject the free speech concerns over costumes and support punishment for students who wear “highly offensive” Halloween costumes.
The poll found that 51 percent of students supported punishment. Yet, there were 49 percent who said that “highly offensive” costumes are “a protected form of free speech.”
Schools are enforcing cultural appropriation rules, including one school with material declaring cultural appropriation to be “cultural genocide.”
The problem (other than the free speech concern) is that this term is defined so broadly as to defy clear understanding. George Nicholas, a Simon Fraser University professor, defined it as “taking or using some aspect of someone else’s heritage without permission or recompense in inappropriate, harmful, or unwelcome ways.”
I have previously written about my objections to these disciplinary actions by schools. There are clearly racist costumes that most of us join in denouncing, such as blackface or other raw portrayals. However, the cultural appropriation movement opposes any depiction of another culture. Indeed, what constitutes a social norm can be hard to discern. A New York Times column gave a tortured account of whether parents could allow their children to dress as Black Panther. The article included advice on sitting down with kids to discuss racial implications of their choices and, as Texas Woman’s University professor Brigitte Vittrup warned, “by not mentioning it, by not talking about it, we’re essentially preserving the status quo.”
Cultural foods and images are shared in society and the arts, particularly in a pluralistic nation like the United States. Adopting a cuisine or a costume is not “appropriating” a culture. Those are part of the mosaic of shared influences and images in a diverse free society. Dressing as a bandit from the movie “Treasure of Sierra Nevada” is not appropriating the Mexican culture. It is mimicking the character of Alfonso Bedoya.
We could accept that cultural icons like Moana are shared and become part of a broader cultural tradition and dialogue. That little girl in the Indian outfit just might be a little girl who wants to be like Pocahontas, a heroine who is strong and unafraid, nothing more. By the way, it is pretty cool to see kids still pretending and dressing up without having to carry all of our problems, from rapes to racism, as they file down our streets on Halloween. We somehow forget how to do that along the way to adulthood. Maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from that samurai or princess who comes knocking on our door on Halloween.