Back in the day, Halloween was controversial thanks to the super religious Brits that condemned it’s celebration of demons and the devil.
These days, the October holiday causes a stir for a different reason. As we’re sure the student activists on campus will already be shouting from the library rooftop (and for good reason), culturally insensitive Halloween costumes undermine racial minorities and uphold systems of oppression – that’s right, we’re looking at a NOT very safe space situation.
What is cultural appropriation?
Put simply, cultural appropriation is when we take a part of someone else’s culture and use it without their permission. It’s different from cultural appreciation, which is taking a part of someone else’s culture and promoting it in a positive way. If you appreciate a culture, you might make an Indian meal for your family and talk to them about the recipe and where it comes from. If you’re appropriating, you might wear dreadlocks for Halloween.
To culturally appropriate on Halloween is to take a marginalized culture and quite literally reduce it to a costume. The idea is that the people who dress up in these costumes can take them off at the end of the day but the group they are dressing up as cannot. Writing for Teen Vogue Jean Andrews described it as ‘the manifestation of one of the earliest, most enduring racist ideals: the belief that people who belong to marginalized cultures are somehow less than human.’
Cultural appropriation and Halloween
When it comes to the spooky season, cultural appropriation can get particularly tricky (pardon the pun). We know that we should never paint our skin to match someone else’s and it’s becoming more widely understood that traditional dress, like that of Native Americans (which has now been banned at a bunch of music festivals) is really not okay either.
But how about film and TV characters? When Disney’s Moana soared to popularity, parents were left debating whether they should let their kids dress up as the Maui princess. FYI – the result of that conversation was that avoiding dressing your white child as an ethnic minority is a great way to give them an early lesson on cultural sensitivity.
Some basic ground rules
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes (before you decide to literally put on their shoes). Think about where your costume comes from and the source culture. Is it a culture that has been historically discriminated against? What’s the significance of the costume you are copying? For example if it’s a bindi, hijab or native headdress, it has spiritual significance and is more than a pretty piece of décor for your skull.
A good way to gage it is to ask if you would feel comfortable wearing your costume around people that belong to the culture you are imitating.
Some surprising costumes it might be best to avoid
So it’s safe to say that dressing up as a Mexican, a Muslim or pretty much any specific oppressed national or ethnic group is a big no-no. But to save the fashion faux pas, here are some costumes that you might not have realised will cause offense this Halloween.
Anything that has to do with the day of the dead
Halloween and the day of the dead are two very different holidays. While there’s no doubt that the beautiful skull you spent hours drawing on last year was painstakingly perfect, day of the dead skulls are traditionally used by Mexican people to honor family and friends that have passed away, which means they can be viewed as a culturally insensitive Halloween prop.
According to the National Organization for women, this word is actually a racial slur – it’s been used historically to stigmatize against Romani people, an ethnic minority with a history of persecution in Europe. Your Esmerelda costume might be cute but racial oppression sure ain’t.
Geisha’s aren’t just historical figures but these female entertainers still exist in modern day Japan. Most people don’t realise that geishas were entertainers but not sex workers. It’s seriously problematic to dress up as any cultural figure, especially with the aim of looking sexy
A Bollywood star
You might really just love Bollywood films but by dressing up as a Bollywood star for Halloween you are reducing the whole of Indian culture to a stereotype.
Dressing up as a sexy ninja is one way to insensitively parody real-life CIA-like figures from Japanese history. Ninjas are real, significant characters of Japanese history.
A voodoo witch doctor
‘Vodoo’ is used as a catchall term to describe religions practiced in Louisiana, Brazil, the Domican Republic and Cuba. But the Hollywood (and Halloween) version bears no resemblance to fact. Dressing up as a voodoo witch doctor can exacerbate harmful stereotypes about religion
Learn and move on
So last year you wore a sombrero and a cheap moustache for Halloween – so what? It’s important we don’t get defensive and simply learn from our past slip-ups. And if you’re really stuck this Halloween, make like Mean Girls and get your mouse ears on.