What is cultural appropriation? And why is blackface wrong?

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Halloween is one of the few occasions when we are allowed to go overboard with costumes and other paraphernalia. It’s a fun and frivolous holiday! Sometimes, it can even push us to make the most offbeat choices just to stand out from the crowd. Speaking of offbeat choices, are you considering painting your skin dark (if you’re fair) or dressing up as a person from a different nationality? Here’s why doing this can be dangerous:

Your costume may be more than a costume to others

Have you heard of the term “cultural appropriation”? To be clear, the danger of doing this is not only present during Halloween. It’s just that we are more likely to do it on this holiday. In the spirit of fun, some may wear costumes like “sexy Indian” or “Indian chief” complete with headdresses, put on blackface to look like a Black pop star or character, or stick a bindi on their forehead to complete their Bollywood costumes.

Cultural appropriation is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

These are just some examples of cultural appropriation. It is a practice that is considered disrespectful of other races or cultures. We should be mindful of this practice. Awareness is part of building cultural sensitivity when living in a multicultural country such as Canada.

What exactly is cultural appropriation and why is it bad?

Cultural appropriation is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” (Susan Scafidi, as cited from A guide to understanding and avoiding cultural appropriation, Nadra Kareem Nittle).

It is bad because when a person uses a representation of a culture (different from theirs) out of context for example, as a Halloween costume or prop, it trivializes and robs it of its meaning. For example, an Indigenous headdress is not a hat; it is a sacred item and a hard-earned symbol of a leader’s ability and wisdom. Similarly, a bindi has religious significance and is not merely decorative. By using these cultural objects out of context, one is also claiming ownership of it without consent or permission.

It becomes more problematic when the culture being appropriated is of a historically oppressed group. The dominant culture profits from the exploitation or gains status from popularizing cultural elements of the marginalized group. Perpetuating negative stereotypes is part of this practice. It has the effect of dehumanizing, as in the case of blackface or brownface.


Cultural appropriation vs. Appreciation , CBC Radio

What is the problem with blackface?

Blackface is an example of cultural appropriation that carries with it a history of oppression and racism. In the 1800s, white actors in minstrel shows would rub shoe polish or greasepaint on their skin to impersonate Black Americans. While the practice began in the US, it also became popular in Canada from the 19th to the early 20th century. Actors would also use make-up to make their mouths comically large (see photo above) to mock African features. The usual trope is to depict Black people as criminals and/or inferior, ignorant and lazy. Later on, the use of Blackface extended to television shows and the movies.

The use of Blackface was not only a way to mock and oppress a minority group. It helped perpetuate negative stereotypes and dehumanized Black people. This is why it is hurtful and offensive.

We need to talk about it

In the course of learning about this issue, you may hear views opposing the concept of cultural appropriation. For example:

  • What about freedom of expression? We are exercising our right to artistic expression. We are just having fun! In fact, by copying their culture, we are celebrating it.
  • Culture is ever-changing and fluid. We have been exchanging and assimilating various elements of culture through the years.
  • It’s just a sign of the times. People are just being overly sensitive and politically correct. In doing so, they are promoting segregation and making things controversial.

This is a complicated issue and while these are valid questions, we should also consider the role of privilege in this equation. Ask yourself: Who are we to decide that our rights are more important than others’? How would you feel if others reduced your culture into a costume?

Continually evaluating our beliefs is essential to our survival in a multicultural and diverse country. When we know better, we do better.

Tips to avoid appropriating culture

How do you know that you’re appropriating culture? Ask the following questions:

  1. Why are you “borrowing” it? Is it out of a genuine interest? Is it something you feel called to do? Or, does it simply look appealing and you’re following a trend?
  2. What is the source? For material items such as artwork, was it made by someone from that culture? What does this item mean to them?
  3. If it is an item that is part of a practice, do you know what the practice is for? Did you learn its history and meaning for that certain culture?
  4. How respectful is this to the culture? What would someone from that group feel about it?

The safest way to avoid cultural appropriation is to listen to your conscience: When in doubt, don’t!
 
Article updated August 13, 2020.
 
Sources: Don’t get what’s wrong with blackface? Here’s why it’s so offensive, Jenée Desmond-Harris, Vox; Why Blackface isn’t ok to wear on Halloween (or ever), Do Something Editors; Race, culture expert shares history and why Blackface and cultural appropriation is inappropriate, Mia Moody-Ramirez Ph.D., Baylor University; Lesson Plan: Why is it offensive? History of Blackface, Modern-day cultural appropriation, Ginger O’Donnell, DiversityIS); and A guide to understanding and avoiding cultural appropriation, Nadra Kareem Nittle, Thought Co. Accessed September 24, 2019.

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