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Advancing Inclusive Excellence

We're a Culture, 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, "We're a Culture, Not a Costume” addresses the problematic practice of cultural appropriation surrounding Halloween costumes, practices, and celebrations. 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 "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign originated from a student organization on Ohio University's campus called Students Teaching About Racism In Society (STARS). Ohio University's (STARS) organization began their "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign in 2011 to combat racial and ethnic stereotypes commonly depicted in Halloween costumes. Learn more about OU STARS's poster campaign and how it has developed/changed throughout the years here

September- Last year, Housing and Residential Education's Diversity Development Team (DDT) recognized it was important to address how cultural appropriation manifests on DU's campus, particularly around the time of Halloween, in the form of costumes, practices, and parties that appropriate certain aspects of other cultures. The DDT reached out to other universities who had also launched their own "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign and generated ideas for putting together a DU poster campaign in time for Halloween.

October- Posters for DU's "My Culture is Not a Costume" are created with the help of student leaders in HRE who bravely volunteer to be a part of the campaign. The following posters were put up in residence halls and around campus to spread awareness around campaign and hopefully reduce culturally appropriative costumes during Halloween.There was a mixed response from students about the "My Culture is Not a Costume" campaign, that played out largely over the anonymous social media platform, Yik Yak. Students' comments ranged from support to strong criticism of the campaign because they felt it told them what not to do. Comments on Yik Yak not only criticized the campaign, but were derogatory and targeted the student leaders who had bravely volunteered to participate in the campaign.

In debriefing the campaign with student leaders some helpful feedback HRE received was that the campaign focused too much on what not to do/limiting students actions, versus educating students on what cultural appropriation is and how it is hurtful and problematic to student groups and individuals on campus.

November- DDT launched a response to the hurtful, bigoted, and derogatory comments on Yik Yak called "Take Back the Yak". This campaign encouraged students, staff, and community members to use Yik Yak as a positive platform for uplifting others, versus a platform where people felt comfortable hiding behind the cloak of anonymity to post cruel comments.

The decision is made by HRE to once again to launch the "My Culture is Not a Costume" campaign, but to take the feedback from last year and make important changes. Some of the overall changes decided in regards to the campaign are the following:

  1. This will be an effort taken on by the whole department with collaboration from various campus partners, not just the DDT
  2. There will be a greater focus on educating students and staff around cultural appropriation and the hurtful impact it has on others
  3. We will not use DU student faces for the campaign, but rather use Ohio University STAR's own poster campaign (with modifications relevant to DU) as the visual media for the campaign
    • With this change, we also changed the campaign to be called "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" which aligns with the language Ohio University STAR's uses
  4. There will be active components to the campaign to further education, which include the following:
    • Professional staff training for HRE and the Division of Campus Life & Inclusive Excellence that explains and deconstructs cultural appropriation
    • Student leader training for HRE RAs that explains cultural appropriation and facilitating dialogue with residents
    • Co-program with DUPB and other offices and student organizations on Driscoll Green to celebrate Halloween and alternative ways to have a fun Holiday without appropriating other cultures
Cultural Appropriation

What is Cultural Appropriation and why is it problematic?

Cultural Appropriation n. [ˈkəlCH(ə)rəl ə-ˌprō-prē-ˈā-shən]

  1. The taking– from a culture that is not one's own– of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge (Ziff & Rao, 1997).
  2. Any instance which means commonly associated with and/or perceived as belonging to another are used to further one's own ends (Shugart, 1997).
  3. To take parts (symbols, artifacts, dress, words, practices, etc.) from a culture that is not your own. This can happen in a variety of forms but often around Halloween it involves wearing 'costumes' that rely on specific cultural signifies.
  4. 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.

[Throughout our Nation's history, the dominant culture has had the freedom and power to take objects or artifacts from other cultures benefiting through systems of trade. This process is known as commodification. The process of commodification is when objects or artifacts are brought into systems of capital exchange. Through this process, the relationship between these objects or artifacts and their intrinsic value are lost; they become equivalent to all other commodities.

Commodification is a manifestation of cultural appropriation. "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" is aimed to eliminate the usage of costumes, clothing, and artifacts as a simple commodity. By continuing to treat cultural costumes as just another piece of clothing found in a store, we are continuing to perpetuate the existing systemic power dynamic between the dominate culture and the cultures of marginalized identities.

The reason why cultural exchange is problematic when it comes to cultural appropriation is because cultural exchange requires that when exchanging aspects from one culture to another, there is a mutual/similar power dynamic between the two.]

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.

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.

How you can address this issue

Here are some of the ways you can start to address these concerns.

  • Self-work
    • If you don't know what cultural appropriation is, look it up. Read some articles and watch some videos on different views and experiences surrounding cultural appropriation. We have provided a few resources below to help springboard this self-work.
    • Be open-minded. If this is new for you, try to listen for understanding.
  • Engage in dialogue
    • Bring up subjects like cultural appropriation with your friends, classmates, and the RAs in your building after you do some self-work. See what their views are and share your own knowledge and experiences.
    • Dialogue is collaborative and about people working together to find a common understanding. IT is about exploring, listening, and re-examining your positions, values, and assumptions.
  • Examine your own practices
    • Are you wearing a costume during Halloween? Ask yourself some critical questions about your costume. Is your costume based on someone's race, ethnicity, or culture? Does my cultural use stereotypes to make a joke or to be sexy? Is your costume exploiting another culture?
  • Be an advocate
    • We aren't saying to be the costume police, but if you see a costume that doesn't sit right with you, start a conversation with that person. Make sure you are keeping yourself safe in these conversations. Be mindful of the environment and who is in the room.