Cultural costumes, such as gypsies, could be offensive. PHOTO: Dasha Zolota

Harmless fun or cultural appropriation?

In Communities2 Comments

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By Alfea Donato

You might want to think twice before wearing that Pochahottie outfit or caking on that blackface.

The appropriateness of various chopstick-wielding, sombrero-donning and hijab-adorned personas worn by those who aren’t from the cultures they’re attempting to represent is being discussed at Ryerson: Is it ever acceptable?

Last week, the Racialised Students’ Collective held “My Race Is Not A Costume,” an event aiming to inform students on why sometimes dressing up can be ethnically insensitive.

Many students at the event shared stories about instances when they were made uncomfortable by costumes that crossed lines.

Third-year electrical engineering student David Seenath remembers going to a cowboys-and-indians themed Halloween party.

“You had cap guns and a rope … you had to capture the indians. I thought it was demeaning,” said Seenath.

Another student recounted University of Toronto’s infamous Cool Runnings incident in 2009, where four white students donned blackface and one Trinidadian student caked on whiteface to look like the 1988 Winter Olympics Jamaican bobsled team and their coach at a Halloween pub night.

When a store near Yonge and Wellesley streets, Reflections Vintage and Antiques, placed a Native American headdress in their window display, they intended to garner interest. Instead, they received an aggressive message on their voicemail.

The owner of the shop, Karyn Troisi, called the police, but was told they were unable to act. The store decided to remove the headdress.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Troisi, “Halloween is not about mocking a culture, it’s about showing diversity and education.” Ryerson vice-president equity, Marwa Hamad, doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t think Halloween is the time to be claiming you’re trying to educate,” said Hamad. “I think that’s a loophole to sell these outfits guilt-free.”

Hamad also finds painting one’s skin to look like another ethnicity offensive.

“They’re just putting it on for a laugh. This person has the privilege of wiping it off his face and going on with his day.”

The conversation at the event became an all-encompassing discussion about issues attendees had with the eating food and wearing clothing that represent other cultures.

Wearing Rastafarian colours when you don’t identify as a member of the religion, for example, is considered offensive by some.

It’s called cultural appropriation, and involves using the ideas from other cultures, not completely understanding them, and not giving the culture credit.

While many had firm, “no exception” approaches to dressing up as someone from another culture, Seenath thought differently. He grew up in the Caribbean, where he said everyone celebrates everything.

“You had black and white people celebrating Muslim holidays. If a black person is wearing a sari, they may not know what it’s about, but they’re there to celebrate, to support,” Seenath said.

Liberal leadership hopeful Alex Burton said no one should take a chance on offending someone.

“We live in an amazing multicultural [society], we need to be more aware of different perspectives.”


  1. If a Papua New Guinean tribesman turns up at village gathering wearing a suit and tie is he guilty of cultural appropriation? Does he need to understand the history of the business suit to be able to wear it? Would the cultural “owners” of the business suit object, citing that the wearing of such an outfit signifies a high place in the business world and that this tribesman hasn’t earned that right?

  2. That is by far the dumbest comment I have ever heard in my life pottering. Since when did wearing a suit and tie ever form an important part of a cultural tradition? If not you’re talking about western corporate greed as the culture being appropriated and you are sadly mistaken in thinking that business apparell that involves the purposeful exploitation of native people each and every single day even levels with Rastafarian culture synonymous with peace and unity. Go and die in a fire idiot

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