When I was managing a beach resort in Ghana, part of my job was to sell the items in the gift shop. One evening, two British voluntourists entered the shop to have a look around. Having been around for a few weeks (3 if I recall correctly), one of them claimed she had become an expert at haggling. The resort owner was with me in this moment and I quickly handed the negotiation over to her, as I saw this Brit was set on getting her price.
She chose the artefact she wanted to buy for her son waiting for her in the UK. She then argued at length about the price; I would not call this haggling. Because even when the owner said she could not go lower, due to the cultural significance of the object this girl wanted to buy, this girl claimed that the price was unreasonable.
How could this owner expect her to pay x amount for a chief’s staff, when it is basically a stick, in her opinion?
Her kid was going to use it as a toy and was liable to break it in a sword fight, so why should she pay so much?
Think about that for a moment.
This is a culturally significant item – which in my opinion should not even have been in the gift shop in the first place, but it was – and this girl was quibbling over the price, so she could bring it to the colonizers land.
Britain was the last of Ghana’s multiple colonizers. And that is where she lived. Where she was going to bring this “stick”, as she called it, so her child could play with, as if it were no different from a toy lightsaber. She had absolutely no understanding, nor did she care about the cultural significance, the historical importance, the overall context surrounding such an item. An item, which her child or another family member could easily have used as part of a costume at some point, be it of a caricature of what his mother told him a Ghanaian chief looks like.
Or worse: as something completely unrelated.
I can’t deny that I needed a bit of a break after that happened. In those days, that meant going to town to have a chat with some friends.
As you keep reading, you can find definitions of loaded and jargony terms I use on my new glossary page!
As voluntourists, how do we appreciate those cultures we voluntour, without reinforcing the colonial legacies that play such a significant role in our interactions in the first place?
We spend a period of time immersed in another culture, buying all kinds of things, including clothes and other fashion items, to remember our experience with. And when we return home, we want to celebrate this culture that has become so dear to us!
Having spent the time there we believe that we have some cultural context and experience, so does that mean it is no longer harmful?
Because we ARE appreciating when we do that, aren’t we?
Even if we wear those clothes as a costume upon our return?
We are doing so to talk about the issues we learned about while there! Or at the very least to have an excuse to tell stories about all the shenanigans we got up to.
Surely all those articles about cultural appropriation are not talking about international volunteers; are they?
Power Dynamics Between Voluntourists and Locals, in Relation to Cultural Appropriation
In my experience in Ghana, foreigners are strongly encouraged to appreciate the local culture in any way possible. For example, whenever I am in Ghana, at least one hairdresser will ask me to let them do my hair. Now, I can’t deny that I am usually a little bit tempted. At first I didn’t think I would look good with my hair done; now I don’t want to cause harm. The fact is, even when I was living in Ghana in near poverty, I still benefitted from white privilege; especially if I were to accept the offers to get my hair done.
As one author eloquently put it, “Costumes that rely on cultural dress and/or stereotypes are offensive and oppressive. Even if you don’t think you’re vehemently racist, you can still perpetuate racism.” (“#IAmNotACostume: What is the Costume Campaign…And Why Do We Do It?”)
If you are reading this, I suspect that is not what you want to do. I also suspect that you would like to tell people about your experience and what you learned along the way. However, when we use material culture to create a caricature, whether we intend to mock or not, not only do we dehumanize whole groups of people, but we also reinforce ongoing oppression of their communities. To make voluntourism anti-oppressive, one of the many things we must do is to consider how we choose to use all of our mementos acquired throughout our volunteering journey.
While it is possible to appreciate the culture of the communities you volunteer in, even on Halloween, we have an obligation to the communities we voluntoured to ensure we represent them with respect.
For example, which do you think would be a more appropriate costume?
- If I were to take one of the dresses made for me in Ghana, put on some of the jewellery, and then say that I am a Ghanaian for Halloween
- If I were to dress as a spider and carry some items specific to one of the Anansesem – Ghana’s folklore stories – and say I was Kwaku Ananse the mischievous spider in that specific story
Each costume would have very different conversations attached to them. Educating others about a whole culture with one outfit, as opposed to educating them about the cultural & historical context of why a specific story exists and a discussion about the moral of the story. Nuances matter.
What about cultural exchange?
While voluntourism will always see cultural exchange, that exchange often feels imbalanced to me. Time and time again, voluntourists have told me that one of the primary reasons they were volunteering was to experience a new culture; yet I would then watch them impose their own culture onto locals in various almost subtle ways.
One day, they are demanding a change in the music played at a local bar, so they can hear their top 40 playlists, despite locals in the middle of having a great time dancing to the music that is already playing. The next, I see the same group returning to the same bar, having planned an Africa-themed party, where everyone dresses up “like Africans” – and suddenly local playlists are acceptable.
This is one of the more obvious examples, yet no-one bats an eye. Is this really cultural exchange? As the minority group picks and chooses which aspects of the majority groups’ culture to adapt to, it is a warped version of assimilation, if you ask me!
- When it comes to costumes, dressing up as a culture – especially one that is not your own – or embodying a cultural tradition that doesn’t belong to your heritage is not a great idea
- If the group has a history of discrimination or oppression, consider changing or adapting your costume
- Anything with high cultural significance or sacredness should be avoided – and I would say it is off limits
- Take the time to learn the history & cultural context of every piece before using it as part of your costume
- IMPORTANT: in case this needs to be said, DO NOT PAINT YOUR SKIN TO MATCH SOMEONE ELSE’S. DON’T.
Is the goal of your costume to represent your experience as a volunteer?
Why not make light of your favourite voluntourism stereotypes, through your costume?
And accept that it might be difficult for you to appreciate any part of the culture without power dynamics being at play. Especially when creating a costume out of the culture.
As someone who lives with white and passport privilege, I did reach out to some of my African & diaspora friends to get some voices other than my own. Overwhelmingly, the response was either neutral or celebratory. Even after I clarified that I was asking about wearing the clothing as a costume.
This was a great re-learning moment:
This nuanced and loaded conversation is also one in which varying opinions are the reality. How people are impacted by such things as cultural appropriation will vary.
There are many articles all over the internet that share similar POVs to my own, even if they are not speaking directly to the specific experience of being a volunteer.
Maybe last Halloween you dressed up as the culture you had voluntoured just before all the borders shut down. And you thought you were showing appreciation to your host culture. And having now read this, you are getting all kinds of negative feelings bubbling up.
We all make mistakes and will continue to do so. What is important is how we react to those mistakes.
Do we choose to dig in our heels and keep doing as we please, because the alternative makes us uncomfortable?
Or do we choose to use this as a learning moment and to grow from our mistakes?
You get to decide which one you do. I know I choose growth and learning. Because we are more than the mistakes we make.
At a minimum, if you want to avoid causing harm, then I advise you to avoid wearing the culture as a costume.
Like Marian Liu said: “Good people sometimes make bad decisions.” (“A culture, not a costume”)
Thinking of how you can appreciate the culture you voluntoured without causing harm?
Finally, don’t take my word for it! Here are some articles written by folks who your costume choice could impact:
- “5 Things You Don’t Realize When You Defend Cultural Appropriation”
- “Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation Tips for Travelers”
- “Don’t Be a Racist for Halloween – Here’s Why Cultures Aren’t Costumes”
- “How To Avoid Wearing A Racist Halloween Costume”
- “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?”
- “Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween”