Culture/Costume

Mariah Cason, Raye Hoffe and Alexis Vivien hold up signs expressing their thoughts on cultural appropriation within Halloween costumes during the “My Culture is Not a Costume” event in 2019.

As Halloween approaches, the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center (LWCC) at East Carolina University continues its annual campaign series, “My Culture is Not a Costume,” in effort to generate a campus-led discussion surrounding the effects of cultural appropriation often seen through costumes and Halloween-themed attire.

The event began on Oct. 6 and will occur every Wednesday from noon until 2 p.m. through Oct. 27 in Suite 100 within the Main Campus Student Center. Students of all cultures are encouraged to attend and share their thoughts on cultural appropriation, and participants will receive a T-shirt for their involvement.

Mariza James, interim assistant director of the LWCC, said in an email statement that the goal of the campaign series is to raise student awareness regarding cultural appropriation, which she defines as the “inappropriate adoption of traditions and practices” of a culture by another, more socially dominant culture. James said the campaign hopes to minimize the misrepresentation of cultures through stereotypical costumes often seen on Halloween.

“It is important for students to be aware of cultural appropriation so that they will not misrepresent other cultures in inappropriate ways,” James said. “Students also need to understand that cultural appropriation is disrespectful to all cultures.”

Junior Olivia Jones, an intended nursing major and member of the East Carolina Natives Organization (ECNO), said she and other ECNO group members attend the campaign series to better spread awareness and educate other students on the importance of cultural awareness. Because some students are not often aware of why cultural appropriation can be harmful to a culture, Jones said it’s important to generate conversation with her peers in an informative way.

Though students may believe costumes are an opportunity to appreciate cultures, Jones said, Halloween costumes are often made to generate profit rather than benefit the culture they’re created for. Throughout her time at ECU Jones said she and other ECNO group members have witnessed students appropriate Native American regalia at various ECU events. Native regalia is special to Native people, she said, a craft that takes time to perfect.

Students can become better informed allies by attending university events held by the LWCC and other cultural organizations, Jones said. She said ECNO’s annual spring Powwow is an opportunity for students to learn about Native regalia and art and its significance to their culture.

“I feel like it’s (the event series) really just about people getting out of their comfort zone and learning things,” Jones said. “But I also feel that a lot of times people are just afraid (to attend these events) because they feel like they’re doing something wrong or that it’s wrong that they don’t know.”

Senior film and video production major Ishara Mathews, who is also an art gallery intern at the LWCC, said the campaign series is important because it raises awareness about how cultural appropriation can dilute cultures and educates students on the complexities of these cultures. As a Black woman, she said, she personally doesn’t appreciate when her peers appropriate African American Vernacular Language, Black clothing and hairstyles.

When you appreciate a culture, Mathews said, you take the time to learn about them, while cultural appropriation is mostly intended for aesthetics. She said Halloween at ECU has sometimes led to costumes that appropriate Black face, traditional hula skirts, Native regalia and other important symbols of various cultures. The LWCC offers diverse cultural events intended to inform students, Mathews said, including the center’s “Reel Talk” cultural film series.

“That’s what appropriation does, it creates, it makes something that is multi-dimensional into something one-dimensional,” Mathews said. “So, I think ‘My Culture is Not a Costume,’ as a campaign helps remind people that these cultures are complex, and they are alive, and they are here, and you should learn about them and not just appropriate them.”

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