Halloween: the one day of the year where we get to be anything we want. It should be a time to have fun and celebrate all things creepy and scary. But sometimes the scariest part of Halloween is the blatant racism expressed in peoples’ costumes.
Cultural appropriation can be defined as taking an aspect of someone else’s culture without permission. You may be thinking, “are you saying I’m racist just because I use or enjoy something from another culture?” Not necessarily. Especially here in our “melting pot” of a nation, where different groups of people interact and share their ideas and customs all the time. Just because you aren’t Mexican doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a burrito, just like you don’t have to be Indian to appreciate the ancient practice of yoga. Many times, we will borrow an aspect of a culture we do not belong to with no intention of being harmful. But cultural appropriation becomes harmful when the culture of the historically oppressed group is being appropriated for use by the dominant culture.
We’ve seen many examples of this in popular culture, like the celebration of the “big booty” on white women despite the ridicule that women of color are subjected to for their same natural figures. And the fact that Zendaya’s dreadlocks become the punch line of a joke, while Kylie Jenner’s cornrows are labeled “cute”, “urban”, and “edgy.” Imagine working on an assignment and receiving an F on it. Then someone else copies your assignment, receives full credit for it, and gets an A. That is how discouraging it can be for people of color to be shamed for their unique customs, while white people are praised for adopting those customs. We see it happen on a daily basis, but Halloween tends to bring out the worst. With entire sections of popular Halloween retailer websites dedicated to "Day of the Dead” and "Cowboys and Indians" costumes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of participating in cultural appropriation. These examples may seem harmless, but when an entire culture is reduced to characters like “Warrior Chief” and “Navajo Hottie”, it’s a slap in the face to the generations of Native Americans who have struggled to keep their culture alive after being killed, tortured, relocated from their homes, and forced to assimilate to Eurocentric standards.
Elisabeth, a Loyola Maryland student who is part Cherokee, speaks from her own experience.
“Halloween costumes of Chiefs or ‘sexy Indians’ perpetuate every stereotype that has been made about my culture,” she says. “Native Americans do not run around barefoot wearing only a loin cloth - we are business owners, successful doctors, contributing members of society.”
But when the stereotypes of Native Americans as “savages” or “Indian princesses” are constantly pushed to the forefront of popular culture, those are the images that we automatically associate with an entire race of people.A major issue of cultural appropriation is when items of one’s culture that are considered sacred, such as the Native American headdress, are appropriated by those who disregard the cultural significance behind them. “A true Chief’s headdress”, explains Elisabeth, “has had each bead, feather, and stitch meticulously placed with deep spiritual meaning after it has been blessed.” The same way the bindi, a religious symbol worn by many women of South Asia, has been turned into a fashion accessory for white women, the Native American headdress is a sacred object that has been stripped of its meaning, repackaged for white consumption, and sold at a Halloween store for $19.99.
Daniela, a first year at the University of Miami, expresses her frustration with the appropriation of her Mexican heritage. “Last year one of my friends dressed up as a ‘sugar skull’ for Halloween,” she says. “It really bothered me because she had no interest in learning about the culture it comes from.” El Día de los Muertos (“The Day of the Dead”) is a Mexican holiday celebrated from October 31 through November 2. During the celebration, families honor the deceased with flowers, decorations, and their favorite foods. “I normally wouldn’t mind other people participating in my culture,” Daniela says. “But people copy it just to make it into a cute costume, they don’t actually care about where it comes from and who it affects.”The common defense of those who appropriate a minority culture is, “I’m not racist, I just want to show my appreciation for that culture!” It’s true that there is a clear difference from attempting to be racist and attempting to pay homage to a culture. A celebrity wearing blackface
to portray an "Orange is the New Black" character is not the same as a white toddler dressing up as Disney Princess "Mulan." There are ways to represent a character of another race without being racist. The problem is that many are oblivious to the negative implications that their costume can have on an entire race, even if their intentions are good.
When Katy Perry performs dressed as a geisha for a “Japanese-inspired” look, she may not be making fun of Japanese culture directly or doing anything overtly racist. But what she is doing is upholding racial stereotypes and aiding in the fetishization of Asian women, whether she means to or not.
At this point, you may be thinking, “What’s the point of trying to avoid cultural appropriation? I can’t even go one day without being influenced by another culture!” Luckily, there are many ways to appreciate a culture without appropriating it. Elisabeth says, “People can pay homage to my culture by simply educating themselves on what it is to be a Native American.” She suggests attending a powwow, or searching online for more information on Native American history.
Avoiding cultural appropriation doesn’t mean you have to give up the things from other cultures that you enjoy. As a white person of European descent, I don’t think I will quit eating sushi any time soon. But I will think twice before buying a “tribal” shirt from Urban Outfitters, even if all the hipsters these days are wearing it. The main things to keep in mind when borrowing someone else's culture are: 1. Where does this come from? 2. What is the significance of it? 3. By adopting it, am I contributing to the oppression of this group? 4. How can I support the people of the culture that I am borrowing from? Exchanging ideas across cultures isn’t a bad thing; it’s what makes our communities so colorful and diverse. But as a society, especially those of us belonging to the culturally dominant group, we need to treat individual cultures with the validity and unique sacredness that they each hold. Not only on Halloween, but every day.
When we treat a culture as a costume, we are reducing real people with real experiences to fictional characters. Costumes are something that people can try on and take off as they please. But culture is never a costume. Humans can not change the color of their skin, they cannot disassociate themselves from their ethnicity, or pretend to be someone else when it benefits them. They wear it every day despite the discomfort it may bring them. So this Halloween, be whatever you want to be. Just be mindful. Be respectful. Be an ally.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
― Harper Lee,