Halloween costumes and cultural appropriations

Melanie Espinal – Special to Southern News

Halloween is arguably the best holiday of the year. It allows us one day to be a little crazy, mysterious or risque. The costumes we wear give us an outlet for creativity, whether we are dressed as Daleks from the British television show, Doctor Who, or zombies inspired by The Walking Dead.

Unfortunately, sometimes people use this creativity to make bad costume choices. This being costumes which appropriate culture.

For those that are out of the politically correct loop, cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which means that people adopt elements from other cultures outside of their cultural context, without an understanding of its significance. This is often done to historically oppressed cultures.

For some, costumes are something to not take very seriously. For others who have to see stereotypical or out-of-context portrayals of themselves and their families, it is difficult to not take it personally.

People in the United States who do not face racial discrimination cannot understand how uncomfortable, and even insulting the situation is for individuals descending from various ethnic backgrounds who do face regular racial prejudice.

When you wear a costume that is supposed to represent an entire culture, you subject the culture to that single ignorant image. A common example of this is the geisha. Most costumes labeled “geisha” are made out of cheap silk that typically has Chinese designs, as opposed to Japanese, where geisha culture originated.

For those who know the place of the complex character of the geisha in Japanese culture, and who also know what a real kimono looks like, it is blatantly insulting. These costumes basically say anything remotely “Oriental” is good enough for the part.

Another example is the Native American chief. This title was not just given to anyone willing to throw down sixty bucks in a Party City. It was given to the courageous and wisest members of tribes. A rank which was often symbolized by a certain head dress or garb.

The costumes worn today mock the importance of that title. People can easily buy faux leather satchel and moccasins, but will not put money towards programs that alleviate the poverty and struggles of modern day Indian reservations.

Costumes like these feed into dangerous stereotypes, stereotypes which make it easier to dehumanize members of these cultures in a way that their past or current oppression is not addressed. We see that a lot in the “Mexican” costume. When headlines in the news are asking about what is going to happen with the immigrant population, stereotypes can be dangerous.

These costumes often mock the humanity and realness of the situation by portraying Mexicans as uneducated people on donkeys, instead of hardworking individuals who want a slice of the American dream, like many generations of immigrants before them. These costumes feed into the uneducated generalization that all immigrants are here to avoid crimes and rape our women (*cough* Donald Trump).

This tactic has been used for decades by people with similar agendas, but on a larger scale. Case in point, blackface. Fortunately, this problem has largely been brought to light by online social activists, popular culture and open dialogues in schools. Movies like “Dear White People” helped push the message though to a lot who might have been well-intentioned but tremendously misinformed.

More people are beginning to understand the issue at hand. Kristen Olson, a freshman English major said, “Don’t expect to come in wearing a sombrero on a donkey and expect to be respected”.

What can we do about this? First, we start off by having an open conversation on culture, and the difference between cultural celebration and exchange versus cultural appropriation. One part of this means not letting friends and family get away with embracing these stereotypes and shrugging off the responsibility of  their actions by saying “it’s only Halloween.”

Photo Credit: Chris_Parfitt


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