It’s Halloween season. Perhaps your child has just watched Encantoand they’ve asked to wear Bruno’s ruanaas a costume for trick-or-treating. Deciding how to answer requires traversing murky moral territory and unpacking the term ‘cultural appropriation.’  

Recently, there has been a serious shift in thinking about what makes for an ethically appropriate costume, attracting considerable media attention from the likes of The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Conversation. The primary concern is that when white people dress-up in outfits removed from their original cultural context, this constitutes cultural appropriation. But what exactly makes cultural appropriation ethically problematic? And does this mean that certain Halloween costumes, such as Bruno’s ruana, are off-the-table for white people? 

At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in September 2022, the session ‘Stealing Culture’ questioned whether cultural appropriation is an important ethical concept at all. This sounds like a strange enquiry since the answer seems like a clear ‘yes’. However, Luara Ferracioli, a philosopher at the University of Sydney, gave a surprising response: while charges of appropriation target serious moral wrongs, “we don’t need an umbrella term like ‘cultural appropriation’”. It is merely a catch-all phrase for a range of problematic behaviour that doesn’t capture anything morally distinctive.

When there is something genuinely wrong that a charge of cultural appropriation aims to pick out, Luara argues that we would do better simply to help ourselves to the variety of familiar and more precise ethical concepts already at our disposal, such as exploitation, misrepresentation, and causing offense. This results in a striking conclusion: the term ‘cultural appropriation’ is redundant, so we should eliminate it from our moral vocabulary.  

I disagree with Luara. The concept of cultural appropriation is an important resource for moral thinking because it allows us to identify a very specific way that marginalised cultures are subjected to erosion by outsiders and subsumed within dominant ways of life. And with Halloween just around the corner, we should be especially worried about the appropriation of culturally significant outfits.   

So what is cultural appropriation?

Starting with the second part of the term, appropriation involves taking something for one’s own use, often without permission. Cultural appropriation occurs when what is taken belongs to a culture that is not one’s own. A distinctive watermark of our time is the salience of this phenomenon in the public’s moral imagination, tending to focus on situations where a cultural material is taken out of context and worn solely for looks.  

Overwhelmingly, the moral concern of appropriation has been directed at the practices of white people, such as Justin Bieber’s wearing of dreadlocks, Timna Woollard’s mimicking of Indigenous art, and the use of tribal symbolism by the Washington ‘Redskins’. As we approach Halloween, costumes are becoming a primary source of worry. Animated films such as Moana, Coco,Aladdin, and Mulan are extremely popular with children, and a spring of inspiration for potential ‘costumes’—such as the ruanaworn by Bruno in Encanto. The main characters of these films are not white. And the films track the stories of protagonists engaging with distinctive forms of life, and the particular problems that emerge within them, may be quite unfamiliar to the typical white person. 

When a white child wears, say, a ruana to resemble Bruno, what causes uneasiness is not just that it might be offensive. Rather, what makes it troubling is its connection to the historical oppression responsible for existing systems of unjust hierarchy, such as egregious histories of settler colonialism, on-going practices of ethnic discrimination, and growing material inequalities that track skin-colour.  

What makes cultural appropriation ethically problematic?

Cultural appropriation is ethically problematic because of its unique way of exacerbating conditions of unjust inequality. Because of this, we must be extremely judicious about our choice of Halloween costume.

When a white person wears a ruanaas a costume, each instance might not appear to require much moral attention. But when these acts are repeated over time, what emerges is something dangerous. A causal feedback loop between the taker and the cultural material results in changing the material’s significance. For example, the ruana, which is native to Colombia, and initially made by its indigenous and Mestizo people, risks transformation from being a garment contained within Colombian culture and history, to a ‘costume’ available for white people to imbue with new cultural meaning.   

This is what make cultural appropriation a unique moral issue. Because cultural materials partly define the identity of a cultural group, such as the kippah for Jewish people or the kimono in Japanese culture, when these materials are appropriated by another group and imbued with new cultural meaning, the boundaries between the groups start to blur.

It becomes difficult to locate the fault lines between the culture that has taken and the culture that has been taken from. Continuing with our example, if the ruana becomes forcibly transfigured to meet the costume-related desires of white society, this will result in the ruana becoming a ‘shared’ cultural material; something that neither belongs to just one culture, but a common artefact that partly defines both.  

Perhaps this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Cultural exchange can be mutually beneficial, after all. But in the context of historical oppression, cultural appropriation is morally alarming. Consider Colombia. It was colonised by the Spanish in the 1500s, and with this came violence, genocide, disease and environmental destruction. The impacts of this history are still felt today, with socio-economic disparities, compromised life opportunities, insecurity and violence, political instability, mass displacement, and a struggle for the recognition and respect of indigenous peoples.  

Being sensitive to the history of oppression and its present impact means we must be morally on-guard against appropriation.

Colonisation in particular requires a special kind of wariness. Given how cultural appropriation can erode and obscure cultural identity boundaries, it is instrumental in furthering colonising projects. Specifically, the effect of cultural appropriation on cultures is asymmetrical: marginalised cultures become ‘subsumed’ within dominant ways of life. For example, the ruana, if continuously used by white people, could become a shared cultural artefact dominantly understood as a colourful ‘poncho’ to be worn at Halloween, rather than something at the heart of Colombian cultural practices.  

This unique way of exacerbating conditions of inequality means that cultural appropriation is a moral concept worth holding onto. Contrary to Luara’s scepticism, there isn’t anything else in our bag of moral terminology up to the task of capturing the distinctive wrong that historically marginalised cultures face when they are subjected to changes from the outside.  

Appreciate, but not appropriate

Does this mean we can never engage with unfamiliar cultural materials? In order to answer, we must consider the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Where the former erodes cultural boundaries, the latter respects them. But appreciating culture takes considered effort.

Firstly, it’s important to learn the cultural significance of a material and whether its use is a contribution to an existing cultural practice, rather than playing a role in establishing a new one. Secondly, we should understand whether others will interpret their use of a cultural material in the same way as them. For example, when one wears a ruana to a traditional Colombian festival, one contributes to existing cultural practices, and one can be seen by others to be participating in this way. This keeps the ruana within its cultural domain rather than giving it new meaning that overshadows it original significance.  

When it comes to a child requesting to wear a culturally significant outfit for Halloween we need to be mindful of the context in which it is worn, and if it’s taken outside of its cultural context, then consider whether it could be a case of cultural appropriation.

And remember that there are kinds of costume that do not risk diluting other cultures or reinforcing historical injustices. By practising cultural awareness, we can enjoy events like Halloween and do so in a way that respects and appreciates other cultures.  


Visit FODI on demand for more provocative ideas, articles, podcasts and videos.