Offensive Halloween costumes seem to be an issue every year. This ranges from vile depictions of beat-up celebrities which reference domestic violence to hurtful portrayals of disabilities which make a mockery of the people experiencing these things. In particular, costumes with cultural appropriation has been a hot topic in recent years. Most people seem to have a very vague understanding that it has something to do with stealing traditions or relics from another culture. This article does an amazing job of explaining this fiery issue in-depth, but essentially cultural appropriation is when someone from the dominant culture uses cultural elements from a minority culture in a problematic way. This includes using fashion, religious traditions, symbols, and language as fun decoration. Wearing traditional clothing from another culture as a costume is one way this happens.
Some common costumes are generic Native American clothing or Dia de los Muertos skull designs. To start with the former example, there are many different tribes of Native Americans, and they each have distinct cultures, so putting on a generic costume to encompass them all is just as ignorant as wearing an outfit that looks vaguely Dutch and claiming to be dressed as a European. The bigger issue, however, is that Native Americans have been treated atrociously by the U.S. government throughout history and even now continue to face disgusting discrimination.
Today, someone living on tribal land does not have an official mailing address, but rather a P.O. box. The issue here is that a citizen cannot vote using a P.O. box number; they need an actual address. Anyone who chooses to live on tribal land therefore cannot take place in democratic elections. Why do people choose to live there despite these repercussions? Aside from the fact that it is difficult to leave the place where their friends, family, and resources are, tribal lands are places where Native American heritage and culture can be celebrated. There are also financial benefits to remaining there. Even though some don’t feel attached to their hometowns and would like to move away, if they don’t have the financial ability to move to a new area where they can find a job, affordable housing, and make enough to make up for the lost benefits, they cannot always relocate somewhere else. To be clear, they should not be forced to make this choice. If you were asked to move to another city just to vote, you would find it outrageous. This is just one example of the subtle ways minority groups are discriminated against.
What does all this have to do with Halloween costumes? What if it’s a culturally accurate costume? Why is it problematic to wear these types of costumes? The groups that live that culture are actively discriminated against while those who only use it as a costume piece get to have some fun and then return to their previous lives. They don’t live the struggles or experience oppression that others have been born with. Sometimes they even contribute to that oppression, such as people who wear sugar skulls on October 31 and tell a Spanish-speaker to “go back to Mexico” on November 1. Using cultural outfits as costumes for a silly holiday shows blatant disrespect for the struggles of a minority group.
It’s very important to note that cultural appropriation specifically refers to members of the dominant culture misusing aspects of a minority culture. White people born in the U.S. are the majority culture in the United States,so an example could be a white person wearing cornrows and an All Lives Matter T-shirt. In theory, anybody using parts of another culture without being educated and respectful of that culture is an issue. The reason it’s worse to do this to a minority culture, as stated earlier in this article, is that the minority culture has likely experienced discrimination and other struggles; blatantly ignoring these struggles to sport casual cultural pieces is disrespectful.
On the topic of disrespect, the dominant culture is often respected on a widespread level while the minority cultures do not have that luxury. In the United States, for example, the dominant culture usually celebrates Christmas in December. Some of the individual traditions may vary, with some focusing more on Jesus and others on Santa Claus, but every radio station plays Christmas music throughout December and every store has decorations both for sale and set up in the building to commemorate the holiday. It would require a lot of shopping around to find a Menorah, despite Hanukkah being an equally valid holiday celebrated around the same time, and harder still to find decorations for holidays farther removed from Christian traditions such as Diwali. Many people in the United States have little understanding of the traditions of Hanukkah or Diwali celebrations, but almost everyone can list a number of Christmas traditions. Those who know something about the less mainstream holidays would often describe them as “weird” or nonsensical because they don’t interact with them on a regular basis to see the value. Because putting out snacks for a costumed home intruder in exchange for gifts seems super normal without cultural context. No, it’s the other cultures that have odd traditions. This of course extends beyond holidays to other areas, such as referring to certain fashion trends as bizarre or calling music genres primarily dominated by another group “ghetto” or stereotyping the people who participate in these areas of culture.
There are respectful ways to participate in another culture. Eating food from that culture, attending an event hosted by members of that culture, and listening to music are typically good ways to be involved. A person simply needs to be careful to be respectful. The two key elements of doing this are education and intention. It is also important to have good intentions. The desire should be to experience something new while being respectful and to appreciate the value of what is being experienced. Having good intentions does not eradicate negative impacts, so for this reason it is important to learn about the culture and have in-depth knowledge of the part of it being used. If it’s food, learn about why that dish and/or the ingredients used became popular. If it’s music, look up the style and research any lyrics to find deeper meaning. The best sources are those created by people from that culture rather than outsiders doing research.
It’s best to avoid Halloween costumes from other cultures. However, there is admittedly some gray area when it comes to that. Something that came up recently on various social media sites was a debate as to whether allowing white children to wear a Black Panther superhero costume would be appropriation. (To clarify, this is not referring to the Black Panther political movement but rather to the Marvel movie featuring T’Challa, king of Wakanda.) If Wakanda were a real country and the Black Panther were a real person protecting that nation, it would be appropriation to dress up that way. However, it is not a real country nor is there a national superhero in an African nation who is comparable to the movie character. It would be highly problematic to wear this costume with black face paint to mask the race of the trick-or-treater, of course. But since Wakanda, it’s people, and it’s culture are fictional, even though the movie resonated with many people of African heritage the character Black Panther does not have a strong enough connection to a particular culture for the costume to be appropriation. Keep in mind that other costumes from the movie should be thought about carefully, as many of the designs were inspired by real African cultures.
When all is said and done, what should be remembered is to be respectful of others and mindful of their unique lives and struggles. If something seems to toe the line, it might be better to avoid it until you can learn more about the topic.