I dressed up like an Indian Princess for Halloween, and a random girl at the party I was at had the nerve to come up to me and tell me my costume was “inappropriate” and “culturally insensitive.” Was there a good way to tell her to lighten up? Halloween is supposed to be about pretending to be someone else for Christ’s sake.

-Caught by the PC Police

There are all kinds of things you could have said to her that would have been good comebacks.

The best I can think of is “you’re right, I’m totally out of line.”

Sometimes the line between what’s “cultural appreciation” and what’s “cultural appropriation” can be fuzzy; for example, I would (weirdly) have less issue with your costume if you’d decided to be Pocahontas–an actual person who you could be claiming to admire–instead of the vaguer “Indian princess” you mention (though I would still have an issue). And I might be wrong to draw that distinction, honestly, because like I said, this stuff isn’t black-and-white.

But if you’re ever in doubt, there’s one easy question you can ask: who has the power here?

There’s a difference between prejudice and bigotry: power. It’s the same reason the word bitch just isn’t the same coming out of a man’s mouth as “asshole” is from a woman, or the n-word isn’t the same coming from a white girl as from a black man: because the person appropriating the costume or word is the person IN power. And they’re taking ownership from someone who ISN’T.

Newsflash, white people and American Indians have a pretty clear power dynamic. So do white people and India, if that’s what you meant. And yes, I’m assuming you’re white, in large part because a.) you heard this at the party and b.) you seem to have no prior sense that this might be an issue, which means you’re probably the person standing in a natural place of power.

There’s a great, thoughtful essay on cultural appropriation at everyday feminism. Take a look at it.

I’m not a promoter of excessive PC-ness, generally speaking. I think making certain words taboo, or saying “this costume is racist, end of discussion,” is just as narrow-minded, albeit in a less destructive way, as capital-b Bigotry.

But there’s a difference between being PC and being thoughtful. One demands adherence to norms, the other asks you to think about how your actions might affect someone else. No, there probably weren’t any angry Indians at your party, but that doesn’t mean your action was better–it just means the consequences were less-bad.

If you can’t wrap your head around what I’m saying, or what the everyday feminism folks say much more clearly than I do, just imagine someone showing up in blackface (or imagine how TMZ might react to that).

That’s the same kind of thing. And it’s not a good look on anyone.