Almost every year around Halloween, news stories pop up on our social media feeds, exposing teenagers and young adults sporting offensive costumes. Oftentimes, heated conversations in the comments section follow the controversial story and coverage.
The stories generally involve white children dressing up as a person from another race or culture, or worse yet, as a stereotype of an entire race or culture. Examples I’ve seen from the past include white Americans dressing in traditional clothing from Native Americans, other religions or other countries.
On one side of the argument, people are offended that Halloween participants are using their culture as a costume, instead of recognizing all of the meaning and symbolism accompanying the clothing and accessories. On the other hand, people argue they are appreciating the culture by imitating the fashion.
The big differences between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange are giving credit and power. If you are copying a style from another culture without acknowledging it originated from them, you are appropriating that culture by taking the style as your own. Especially if you come from a dominant culture and are adopting traditions from historically marginalized groups, power dynamic adds to the harm.
I once had a friend sarcastically ask me during a debate on this topic if he should avoid eating food from other cultures because it would be considered cultural appropriation. Obviously, we should not be limited to only enjoying items produced by people from our own culture. The joy of living in a country with people from so many backgrounds and traditions is we get to share with one another.
When we go out to eat, however, we almost always automatically give credit. We’ll say things like, “Do you want to go out for Italian food tonight or order Chinese food?” We are naturally acknowledging which country created the food we are about to enjoy.
Regarding power dynamics of cultural appropriation, opponents may claim marginalized groups are appropriating Western culture by speaking English or wearing typically Western clothing. People cannot appropriate the dominant culture because it is all around them, so they are simply assimilating by participating in the same traditions.
It may be tempting to think buying a costume from a Halloween shop is a safe way to avoid offensive outfits. I am sorry to report this is not the case, as these stores continue to perpetuate stereotypes and profit from people buying the costumes.
While picking up Halloween decorations this year, I browsed some of the costumes for sale. I was horrified to find "Mexican Man,” a box with a picture of a white man wearing a sombrero and moustache, along with “Native American Princess,” a white model wearing traditional clothing for indigenous people and standing in a sexy pose.
There was also religious appropriation, with sexy costumes labeled “Rabbi” and “Nun.” I didn’t see it at the store, but I have seen in the past people who are not Muslim wearing hijabs and burqas. The worst couples costume I saw this year was a man dressed as a wall and a woman dressed as a Mexican citizen, referencing Trump’s immigration policies. There were even variations of it, some with one person dressing as Trump and the other dressing as the wall or an immigrant to the United States.
Cultural appropriation has negative consequences lasting beyond the night of Halloween. It can erase credit for creators, spread lies and stereotypes about underrepresented groups, maintain prejudice and ignore past oppressions.
I am not advising you to stop dressing up for Halloween altogether, but just to take a second and think before putting on a costume. Ask yourself, am I representing a group that is not my own? If so, how would a member of that group react to my costume and if it is a positive reaction, am I giving them credit for what I’m wearing?
There are plenty of non-controversial costumes to wear. My personal favorite are inanimate objects; my partner and I are going as soap and loofah this year. There are also animals, puns, foods, celebrities and fictional characters, provided they are not dressed in any traditional clothing from a culture that is not your own.
With so many fun and creative options out there, don’t be the next embarrassing Halloween headline. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone’s costumes.