It originated over 2000 years ago as a pagan Celtic holiday known as Samhain (pronounced “sah-win” in Gaelic) where people celebrated the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, which was associated with harshness and death. People back then would light bonfires and wear masks, such as goat or boar’s heads, to scare off the ghosts that were said to wander back towards earth on All Hallow’s Eve. Much later, around 600 CE, there was a cultural shift to honor saints and martyrs associated with Christianity, and during the next day, All Souls Day, the poor would go from house to house asking for food. If they were lucky, they would be given special cakes (called soul cakes) if they promised to pray for the dead.(1) It is said that this was a way to discourage the practice of leaving food as a sacrifice for spirits and rather focus on the living.
Cultural changes continue over the centuries. Many of the current traditions have morphed into less scary celebrations with trick-or-treating, marshmallow roasts, pumpkin picking, and the like, although the popularity of vampire genre has reversed this trend.
Yet another trend – cultural appropriation has received much attention as of late. Cultural appropriation is about power – a dominant culture taking elements of a non-dominant culture and profiting from it in some way. We can look at the recent issues regarding Urban Outfitters and their use of Navajo designs, the Washington Redskins and sports memorabilia, or Nike and the Samoan Pe’a tattoo leggings, among others. Just the day before, The New York Times brought up the issue of cultural sensitivity and free speech on college campuses throughout the U.S. regarding Halloween costumes. (2) Apparently, the president of the University of Louisville had a Halloween party with a Mexican theme and took a photo with university staff members wearing sombreros, sporting fake mustaches, and holding maracas. There was outrage. An apology was made. Students were put on alert.
Opinions ranged from shock that this matters – to outrage that people would be shocked that it matters. That is, is it oversensitivity or is it exploitative? Elsewhere, costumes that were considered offensive this year at Wal-Mart were: Pochahottie; Sheik Fagin Nose; and Israeli Soldier Costume for Kids. (3) Or what about the old standards – Pirates, Witches, or the Playboy Bunny? Cultural appropriation is a complex matter that should be taken seriously.
Regardless of where one might stand on the issue, here is something to think about. It has been argued that there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange – when do you know that you are stepping outside the context and offending someone? (4) Knowing something about other cultures and the sensitivities and challenges that people from those groups face on a day to day basis is important for global leadership. As we develop our cultural competence the goal is to become more aware, to understand better, and to constantly work at the ability to be skillful within different contexts and situations. This article (2) gave me pause to think about how my own attitudes towards things that I might take for granted might be upsetting to other people. It reminded me to be forward-thinking so that I might consider how someone else might experience something, rather than be backward-thinking where I’m resting on unexamined ethnocentric tendencies (e.g., Why does it matter?).
A case in point – a friend of mine asked for advice in the hopes that he could gently bring up an issue of concern to his boss. He worked in a small company that prided itself on hiring people from a variety of backgrounds. As the general manager, he was in charge of handling the day-to-day issues that came up with both the company and the employees. He had a good rapport with his direct reports and they respected and admired him. So when this incident happened, they asked him to let the boss know that while he meant well, he was way off. You see, the boss wanted to get to know his employees better and to help them feel included, so he arranged for a Cinco de Mayo celebration. Good music, good food, good fun. Right? Well…actually…no! What he didn’t realize was that out of his staff of 25 employees, half of them were Hispanic. (5) They were from Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. While from his perspective the boss was trying to be considerate, he actually was minimizing the fact that there were differences among these groups – and, he wasn’t aware that Cinco de Mayo – a national holiday – is celebrated by people in Mexico.
These are a couple of insightful lessons to make us more aware of how the people around us may think, feel, and react to issues of taking an aspect of culture and using it for unintended purposes.