Don’t Wear Me
Halloween is a time for scares, candy, and apparently, disrespecting people’s cultures.
Written by Jaida Nolan
Leaves are crunching under foot, pumpkin spice is in the air and the breeze just got chilly enough to send that special tingle up your spine as the beloved holiday of Halloween approaches. All Hollow’s Eve involves quite a few sweet and spooky activities: bobbing for apples, trick or treating, carving pumpkins and so much more. Arguably one of the most popular traditions of this season is dressing up as something other than yourself for one night of spectacular fun. However, unlike the usual scary-but-wholesome vibes of Halloween, this tradition has a serious dark side.
Cultural appropriation has been a hot topic of debate for the better half of the last decade, bolstered by the amount of offensive and insensitive costumes that are often worn on Halloween night. In case you don’t know exactly what cultural appropriation means, Dictionary.com defines the term as “the adoption, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers from subcultures or minority communities into mainstream culture by people with a relatively privileged status.” Essentially, it is wearing the traditional clothing or accessories of a culture that you are not a part of for monetary or social gain.
Those who call for an end to costumes like this simply want to see an end to making marginalized groups the butt of the joke. Comedy should be about punching up, not punching down.
For Halloween, this would include dressing up as an “Indian Princess,” “Tequila shooter guy,” or a “Geisha woman.” This would also include painting your skin to be a darker shade to depict a certain ethnic group or “stay true” to a fictional character’s identity. While this doesn’t seem too sinister on the surface, a deeper look unveils why it is so harmful. Dressing up as a person of color, whether they are Black, Native American, Asian or Hispanic, is not the same as dressing up as a doctor or police officer — even if they both draw inspiration from real life. The difference here is obvious: anyone can be a doctor or police officer. Only those born as Black, Native American, Asian or Hispanic can bear those respective cultural identities. It is never necessary to be so “true” to a character’s design to the point of being offensive.
Cultural appropriation doesn’t just hurt minority groups by making them uncomfortable. It actually often leads to the reinforcement of harmful stereotypes about their people. As previously mentioned, one popular costume is a tequila shooter — which is not only almost never worn by an actual Hispanic person, but also reinforces the idea that Hispanic people are frequent drinkers. While it could be argued that anyone could be a tequila shooter, these costumes almost always include the Mexican flag and other traditional Hispanic clothing. These costumes can get even lazier, as when non-Hispanic people just throw on a poncho, which is often worn in Mexico as a traditional clothing item, slap on a cheesy mustache, and use their outfit as an excuse to put on an extremely out-of-touch “Mexican” accent.
When there are so many fun and creative costume ideas out there, especially if you make one yourself, why would you consciously choose something that belittles and hurts others?
This reinforcement of harmful stereotypes can span across all cultures. Wearing clothing associated with Black culture while using African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and calling yourself a “gangster” for Halloween, does nothing but reveal that you perceive Black people as aggressive and criminal, even when they are just going about their day-to-day activities and existing in their skin. Putting on a kimono and speaking in a conglomeration of all the East Asian accents you’ve ever heard — even though kimonos are solely from Japanese culture — contributes to the problem of lumping every Asian country into the same cultural identity. Finally, donning a Native American headdress to be a “war chief” reinforces one of the oldest stereotypes to date that Native Americans are nothing but mindless savages.
Another common form of cultural appropriation involves taking sacred or traditional clothing and making it “sexy” for a cute Halloween costume. This is often seen as people wearing “skimpy” versions of things like the previously mentioned traditional Japanese kimono, ponchos and powwow dresses. If none of that jumps out to you as wrong, maybe these words from Shannon Speed, the director of American Indian Studies at UCLA, will change your mind: “If there were any consciousness in this country of the huge problem of violence against Native women and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in this country, they'd have to stop and think about what putting on a sexy Indian costume might mean." Speed is clearly referring to a more extreme case here, but it does beg the question: could the women wearing these costumes actually handle the struggles that come with being a Native American woman?
There’s nothing wrong with finding an escape in being someone else for a while. However, there is something wrong with mocking and dehumanizing an entire group of people in the process.
As more and more people start to fully understand cultural appropriation in all its complexities, its definition expands and changes. Most recently, there has been a push for other potentially insensitive costumes to be avoided on Halloween, such as a prison inmate or psychiatric patient. While this might err too far on the side of cautionary to some, the idea has pure intentions behind it. Both prison inmates and psychiatric patients are struggling groups, and when people dress up as either, it is usually to mock them. Those who call for an end to costumes like this simply want to see an end to making marginalized groups the butt of the joke. Comedy should be about punching up, not punching down.
For many, Halloween can be a fun way to end a long month by letting loose and not being themselves for just one night. There’s nothing wrong with finding an escape in being someone else for a while. However, there is something wrong with mocking and dehumanizing an entire group of people in the process. When there are so many fun and creative costume ideas out there, especially if you make one yourself, why would you consciously choose something that belittles and hurts others? So, for this year’s Halloween, the only thing you really shouldn’t dress up as is someone else’s culture.
To learn more, visit:
Cultural Appropriation and Halloween: How to Know Which Costumes Are Okay (bhg.com)
What to know about Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation (usatoday.com)
Halloween and Cultural Appropriation | Northeastern University Asian American Center
Professor discusses why many popular Halloween costumes are examples of cultural misappropriation | FIU News - Florida International University