Halloween has taken on many forms over the centuries that it’s been around. Today in the U.S., it’s a night of good-natured fun, candy and dressing in costumes. What isn’t fun is having your culture, history and way of life turned into a caricature for someone to wear. Before you go put on that pseudo-tribal headdress or grab that foundation that’s too many shades too dark, let’s talk about what cultural appropriation is and why it’s a real issue.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
One might ask, “Well, how am I supposed to know that it’s someone else’s culture?” or “How is that even offensive?” or even better, “We’re all one race, so of course we share cultures!”
No one is saying to never have ideas influenced by another culture, nor that you can’t ever experience cultures different from your own. What we are saying it to give credit where credit is due, and not to rebrand customs of minorities as something hip and modern that you invented. More often than not, it’s better to leave it alone if it isn’t a part of your history or culture. A great example is Kim Kardashian’s recent controversy over her “Bo Derek” braids. Bo Derek is a white woman. The hairstyle didn’t originate with Bo Derek; black people have been wearing them for a long time.
It is also important to ask yourself this: Are there consequences for the original creators of this culture from embracing it, and am I subject to those same consequences? When it comes to hair especially, black and brown folks have been systemically made to assimilate to more Eurocentric styles, lest they are called “unkempt” or be subject to dress code violations. If what you’re wearing would be considered “dirty,” “ghetto” or “inappropriate” on a melanated body, maybe you should reconsider your fashion choices.
With that being said, here’s a handy checklist to avoid being racist this Halloween:
1) Is your costume of a race, ethnic group or culture separate from your own?
If you’re going as “Mexican,” “Asian,” “Black,” “Indian” or anything of the sort for Halloween, just don’t do it.
2) Does your costume include words such as “tribal,” “ethnic,” “authentic,” or “traditional?”
Your costume could never be “authentic” or “traditional” if it isn’t your own cultural, especially because it was your own culture, you probably would be using it in its intended contexts instead of playing dress up with it. It’s a prime example of white privilege to be able to take these “costumes” off at the end of the night. Black and brown folks cannot do that.
3) Does your costume promote harmful stereotypes or inaccuracies?
If your costume has “tribal,” “ethnic,” “authentic” or “traditional” in the name and it is of a culture that isn’t your own, then you are definitely promoting harmful stereotypes and inaccuracies. It’s OK to dress up as a character from a movie or TV show. For example, wearing the suit from ‘Black Panther’ is fine! However, when you wear blackface or traditional garb such as the dashiki to be “African,” then you start to get into trouble.
Examples of what not to wear: Sombrero with a poncho, “Indian Princess/Chief” outfit with headdresses, dressing as a geisha, any type of “____face” i.e., blackface, yellow face, red face, etc.
You can have fun without being disrespectful, and there are a lot of other costumes to choose from that aren’t racist. Enjoy yourselves, and have a safe and spooky night!