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Advancing Inclusive Excellence

My Culture is Not a Costume

The University of Denver’s Housing and Residential Education department has launched a photo campaign to help end culturally appropriative (Halloween) costumes. The campaign is called, “My Culture Is Not a Costume” and it addresses the cultural appropriation surrounding parties and celebrations such as Halloween. The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness and to create a better sense of belonging and how to have a respectful and inclusive community for all students at DU.

The concept is based off of a movement launched in 2011 by S.T.A.R.S. students at Ohio University to prevent cultures from being translated into stereotypical costumes.

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What is cultural appropriation and why is it problematic?
  • Definition: To take parts (symbols, artifacts, dress, words, practices, etc.) from a culture that is not their own. This can happen in a variety of forms but often around Halloween it involves wearing ‘costumes’ that rely on specific cultural signifies.
  • Dressing up as an ethnicity, race, or culture that is not your own is very problematic.
  • A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.

It is also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of a dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t. 

Some say, for instance, that non-Western people who wear jeans and Indigenous people who speak English are taking from dominant cultures, too. But, marginalized groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun. 

In other words, context matters. 

Which means it’s not about saying that you, as an individual, are a bad person if you appropriate someone else’s culture. It’s a complicated issue that includes our histories, our current state of affairs, and our future, as we act to eliminate oppression, instead of perpetuating it.

Cultural appropriation is a double edged sword. When cultural artifacts or symbols are reproduced or used as substitutes for existing culture it can be detrimental to those who belong to that culture.

To learn more, please consider the following sources on campus:

If you are interested in getting involved with student organizations, please visit: https://orgsync.com/login/university-of-denver

Some student orgs include: 

  • Asian Student Alliance
  • Black Student Alliance
  • DU Students for Israel
  • International Student Organization
  • Korean Student Alliance
  • Latino Student Alliance
  • Muslim Student Association
  • Native Student Alliance
  • South Asian Student Association
  • Queer Student Alliance
  • Vietnamese Student Association