Cultural Appropriation and Halloween
by Megan Huynh
Warrior Princess Native American. Gorgeous Geisha. Mexican Man. A white turban meant to “complete your Middle Eastern costume.” All of these are Halloween costumes I found after a quick search on the Spirit Halloween website. Personally, I was disgusted as I scrolled page after page of costumes, each worn by a smiling model (white, of course), as if their outfit was something they just threw on for fun, rather than an offensive generalization of a culture. On a holiday meant for us to dress up as something scary or funny and have a good time, it is surprising how much blatant amount of racism and cultural appropriation is justified for the sake of “celebration.”
During Halloween last year, Yale lecturer Erika Christakis faced backlash after speaking out against an email from the college’s Intercultural Affairs Committee that urged students to think before dressing as a culturally ignorant stereotype, saying that the holiday excused children to be “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Christakis’s response is a common rationale that others give to warrant their dress for the holiday, saying that their costumes are just that––costumes. Those who claim that those offended by their costume just need to “grow thicker skin” or “can’t take a joke” are sweeping aside the voices of people of color and further perpetuating the systematic oppression they face on a daily basis.
Cultural appropriation on Halloween reduces centuries of culture and history to a costume of a caricature. The geisha, traditional Japanese entertainers classically trained in art and dance, wear particular kimonos based on their ranking as they progress in their training. A typical geisha costume, of course, takes none of this into account, replacing the traditional kimono with a cleavage-baring, short cut dress, emblazoned with a meaningless dragon on the side. Similarly, the “Native American” costume homogenizes tribes across the country, each with its own distinct language and culture, into one group represented by a sexy suede minidress with fringe, while the wearer dons war paint with generic symbols and a nondescript beaded headdress. Not to mention, it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth that those who colonized and massacred the Native Americans are now dressed up as them for a holiday.
Such costumes also perpetuate negative stereotypes by exaggerating features of a “typical” member of that culture: a sombrero and poncho epitomize a Hispanic man, a beard and turban are representative of someone Middle Eastern. Reducing cultures to laughable caricatures just serves to further those notions in society. I mean, if someone dresses up as a funny Mexican guy holding a taco and maracas, all of them must be like that, right? Not only is this just ignorant and offensive, it also sustains current discrimination and racism against these groups. When you dress up in a costume as a specific culture, you never experience the oppression they face every day: dressing up as a Middle Eastern terrorist only sustains the Islamophobia present today, and just because you can wash off your blackface doesn’t mean anything be done to wash off the police brutality and other forms of antiblackness faced by the African American community.
This Halloween, remember to be conscious of your costume decisions. Make sure to avoid any references in your costumes to any particular group, especially ethnicities. Be mindful that a culture is not a costume. And if you’re out of ideas, you can always play it safe and just dress up as a black cat!