Halloween is right around the corner and you know what that means: ghouls and goblins, superheroes and their villain counterparts, every “sexy” animal adaptation imaginable, and the reduction of an entire race or culture down into a single costume. Yes, if you’re wondering, this is another article about cultural appropriation and the platform that Halloween gives it, but hey, it wouldn’t keep coming up if it still wasn’t relevant.
For centuries, but especially during recent decades, Halloween has always been a banger of a holiday: free candy, parties galore, crazy costumes, and the opportunity to push the envelope in the hopes of having just a bit more fun. But what happens when it’s pushed a little too far and people get caught in the crossfire? Costumes can be a fun way to express interests. You’ve got movies, television, music, sports, professions, archetypes, and sexualized versions of all of the aforementioned (I’ve seen everything from a sexy crayon to a sexy infant to a sexy corn on the cob; it gets pretty damn weird). But regardless of the wide variety of options, culturally appropriated costumes still pop up every year.
Cultural appropriation is the use of culturally specific material by a dominant group (i.e. White people) without the expressed collective consent of the marginalized group to which the material belongs. Minorities are punished and mocked for their originality and their culture, yet when someone of privilege essentially rips off said originality and culture, they’re praised for it and profit from it. The privileged are seen as cool or trendy, whereas minorities would be considered ghetto or trashy for the exact same thing. Culturally appropriated Halloween costumes perpetuate harmful stereotypes about people of color and minorities. And since our society equates “Whiteness” with normalcy, anyone or anything outside of “the norm” is considered “exotic” or “funny” and therefore, perfect for the dominant culture to use as a Halloween costume. These appropriated costumes often range from Black face or Yellow face, a “sexy” Indian girl, a Native American with a hatchet and a headdress, African costumes, Geishas, Mexican and Dia de los Muertos costumes, Inuit and Eskimo costumes, and Arab or “Terrorist” costumes. By putting on costumes such as these, one is taking from a marginalized group without their permission, typically without respect or knowledge of their culture, and using it for their own personal fun and gain.
This is never an easy topic to discuss because there will always be those who don’t agree, who think it’s an issue of oversensitivity or being too PC or having their right to free speech and self-expression challenged or taken away. “It’s just a joke!” “Stop trying to take the fun out of Halloween!” “It’s just a costume!” Even so, an acknowledgement of privilege of power needs to happen. Why is your costume so funny? Why is it a joke? Why are you so desperate to wear it over anything else? What are you trying to say with your costume? Many give the argument that they are “appreciating, not appropriating,” but is one really appreciating a culture if they are only acknowledging it for one night out of the year? Is it really appreciation if the acknowledgment is nothing more than a joke?
It is really easy to dress up as another culture for one night and have a good time. Then, when the morning rolls around and your hangover starts its subtle roar, you get to take off the makeup and the outfits that transformed you into someone else from somewhere else that you never really understood to begin with. When Halloween night is over, you get to go back to your normal self, not having to suffer any of the consequences that the culture you’re masquerading as have to face every day for simply being a member of that group. By dressing up as another culture, you are belittling the experiences of those within that culture. What you may wear for one night, they wear for life. You get awesome pictures and Instagram likes, they get to be outcasted and demonized. It is pretty fucked up to have to put up with discrimination, hostility, violence, and exploitation on a daily basis and then go out on Halloween to see the very people responsible for your oppression making fun of you through the use of ridiculous stereotypes.
When it comes to Halloween, the line is rarely as clear as we may hope. The obvious thing to do would be to not wear a costume that could be offensive to a certain culture or group; but in the right context, any costume can offend anyone. So where does that really leave us? We can start with understanding our social position and maybe reading up on some literature to further expand our knowledge on the topic. Ignorance in scenarios such as these have never produced appealing outcomes, so the more we know, the better off we may be. We can also simply consult our friends and our peers. If you aren’t sure if something is offensive, ask. Don’t just show up and hope for the best, prepare yourself instead. Breaking down centuries of structured racism isn’t just going to go away overnight, but it’s going to happen even slower if no one says or does anything about it. Now, I’m not saying that if you go out on Halloween and see people appropriating other cultures through their costumes that you should drop all your candy and go dropkick them. Rather, we should acknowledge that there definitely is a problem and stop shying away from the difficult conversations that we must have.
At the end of the day, you have the right to wear what you want on Halloween, even if it belittles and insults the people that you claim to admire. But, by taking the time to really examine and think about the impact of what we wear on Halloween has, we could be one step closer to living in a post-racist society.