How Not To Be a Racist for Halloween
You can have Halloween without the overpriced decorations on your neighbor’s yard that you repeatedly tell your mom are not cool, no matter how much your inner five-year-old disagrees, and the cheap plastic bowls full of enough candy to warrant at least a few cavities and extra pounds, but the holiday is meaningless without dressing up. How else are you supposed to get in the Halloween spirit?
As you thought about what to dress up as this year (and debated whether or not anyone at your little cousin’s Halloween party would notice if you just threw on that witch costume from two years ago), you probably scrolled through social media or the internet for inspiration. And as you did so, you might have come across an Instagram infographic that’s titled something like “How not to be a racist for Halloween” or an article called “15 Offensive Halloween Costumes You Shouldn’t Wear This Year.” You probably asked yourself what the heck is going on. Since when were Halloween costumes offensive? What is cultural appropriation? And why is this dude on the internet telling me I’m racist if I dress up as a Native American princess?
Holiday costumes should be a way to express yourself and have fun with your friends while not being yourselves for a night. However, certain costumes are offensive to people of marginalized groups and cultures because they perpetuate harmful stereotypes or mock a culture and/or its elements. Sara Hinojos, an assistant professor at Queens College-SUNY, says, “If you are dressing up as someone who’s supposed to be Mexican, using a sombrero, a mustache, a donkey, that tells me you don’t respect me. For me, it’s a reflection of how the mainstream or people are treating Mexicans in general.”
Other offensive costumes may use ethnically, racially, or culturally based elements with the intent of being funny or erotic. Something like a “Sexy Native American Girl” costume doesn’t seem funny when you take into account that indigenous women in North America face the highest rates of sexual assault out of any ethnic group (1 in 3 Native women will experience rape in their lifetime). In fact, finding a different culture funny or joke-worthy is offensive in and of itself. Kat Lazo, a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism, writes, “...our society equates Whiteness with normalcy, and therefore everyone outside of that category is foreign, weird, or joke-worthy – perfect for a costume.”
Cultural appropriation is a term you may have heard before. Your favorite celebrity may have gotten “canceled” for it, or you may have heard about your favorite clothing brand facing controversy associated with it. But, what exactly is it? According to Dictionary.com, cultural appropriation is “co-opting... of cultural identity markers associated with or originating in minority communities by people or communities with a relatively privileged status.” Long story short, cultural appropriation is when someone adopts something that is culturally associated with or created by a marginalized group.
There always seems to be an ongoing debate of whether cultural appropriation is harmful or helpful, or if it is appropriation or appreciation (and I’m sure you’ll find many arguments about the topic in the comment sections of TikTok videos). The same applies to costumes that are culturally appropriated. One such costume is when Karlie Kloss, a Victoria’s Secret model and white woman, walked down the runway in a suede, turquoise jewelry, and a feathered headdress in an attempt to imitate a “Sexy Native American” costume. The general consensus of that “cultural appropriation controversy” (or instance of racism, as I like to call it) was that it was entirely inappropriate. The war bonnet she donned was one that’s only given to members of a tribe who’ve earned it through acts of bravery and honor-worthy achievements. Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist of the Oglala Lakota Nation, told MTV, “This is analogous to casually wearing a Purple Heart or a Medal of Honor that was not earned.”
The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, faced immense criticism after news broke that he’d worn brownface to an Arabian Nights-themed costume party as a 29-year-old teacher at a British Columbia private school (Trudeau himself admitted the act was racist). Many people also note that his act was evidence of Canada’s systemic racism because, while he could wipe off the color at the end of the night, many Canadians can’t. They live with the reality that their skin color makes them potential targets for that type of racism.
The line between appropriating and appreciating can get very fuzzy when it comes to costumes of characters that belong to marginalized groups. When Disney released Moana in 2016, many costumes of characters from the movie were pulled from stores because of the backlash they received. Among these costumes was one of Maui, which was removed because it featured a long-sleeve brown shirt with traditional tattoos worn by Polynesian chiefs.
Despite the many conflicting views on offensive and culturally appropriated Halloween costumes, one thing is for sure. Most people of marginalized groups feel hurt when they see their race, ethnicity, or culture (or an offensive stereotype of it) turned into a thirty dollar costume. So, please don’t be a racist for Halloween. You may be lucky enough to not be affected by the implications of your costume, but there are millions of people who don’t have that luxury. Don’t use someone’s culture or identity as a costume.
And, if you still need help grasping why it’s wrong, there’s this wonderful website called Google with plenty of free resources to help you out. Happy trick or treating (or not, because there’s a, you know, global pandemic going on)!