Along with pumpkin spice, leaves falling, horror movies and midterms, October is known for Halloween parties and costumes. With each year students spend weeks searching and planning for the best costume to get the perfect spooky, shocking or sexy shots to post on social media.
Along with the tried and tested costumes such as movie characters, famous people or horror movie clichés comes a slew of inappropriate costumes. College students, little kids and adults dress up as cholos with flannel shirts and fake tattoos, hula dancers or Pocahontas.
Here’s the (not-so-shocking) truth that cultural appropriation and racism is alive and well, and sometimes hides behind Halloween and dressing as something you’re not.
It’s a hot topic in the media in recent years and especially around Halloween. But what is it?
Cultural appropriation is the action of a majority group using their privilege in order to claim or show off a part of another culture of a minority or marginalized group. Some may claim that this is just cultural appreciation, not appropriation, but that’s not always the case.
Is it only white people that need to be held accountable for cultural appropriation? No. If someone wears blackface or dresses up as a Native American that is not a part of those cultures, they are practicing cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation causes minority cultures to become caricatures. It minimizes marginalized groups and their struggles in fighting for recognition in a society that has in the past been violently racist and, in many ways, still is.
For example, let’s take a non-native child dressing up as Pocahontas. Indigenous peoples and their cultures is not a costume. That little girl is dressing up as a character of the native experience.
Pocahontas embodies a real-life indigenous tragedy. By dressing as her, not only is the history of indigenous struggle being minimized, but the many varied, beautiful and intimate native tribes and nations found in the United States becomes defined as a cheap buckskin dress with plastic beading and a fake feather.
The native experience becomes a costume, and becomes something unrealistic without thinking about the racism and struggle that native people still face today.
Native regalia is not some costume, and the clothing native nations wear in ceremonies and gatherings can take months, or years to create. Each bead and stitch is done by hand and has meaning for that culture. The symbolism found between tribes can be vast and deeply personal.
When a white man dresses in a headdress or a little non-Native American girl dresses up as Pocahontas, you are erasing the history and struggle of native people. Indigenous people aren’t some myths but real, valid, breathing, living people.
So maybe you agree that dressing up in a headdress or wearing black-face are obvious no-no’s. But what’s the big deal about wearing your hair in braids, or dressing up in a poncho or sombrero? Frankly, a lot.
For the same reason as the previous example, you are defining a variety of cultures, peoples and countries as simplified cartoons. You are defining Hispanic and Latinx culture as ponchos, tacos and sombreros – not recognizing the historical significance, ceremonial use or real-life people that dress and live every day.
Cultural appropriation boils down to people of privilege dressing as real cultures and individuals. They are creating a costume out of a stereotype. They are parading around in outfits and clothing that the people from those cultures get made fun of for wearing on a daily basis.
People take their privilege and use Halloween as an excuse to dress up as another culture for a night without taking in the fact that minorities deal with racism for their culture every day.
Minorities and marginalized groups don’t get the choice to only be Hispanic/Latinx, Polynesian, Asian, African American or Indigenous for a night at a party. They go through life, their jobs, school, walking down the street experiencing racism and stereotypes. They deal with media, movies and books portraying their culture as simplified caricatures.
Cultural appropriation is not appreciation of a cultural, it’s turning a culture into a spectacle.
So, what things aren’t cultural appropriation? Parts of culture that typically are okay to enjoy are music, food and media.
What is typically not okay? Religious clothing, ceremonial clothing, stereotypes or physical appearances.
These aspects of minority culture typically hold emotional or significant meaning. They are aspects that are a part of the people themselves and can’t be decided or changed.
A person of color can’t decide to lighten their skin, or change bone structure. Certain hair styles aid in health of non-white hair, and hold a history of white oppression or disdain (i.e. dreads, braids or afros).
Some clothing has religious meaning like hijabs, native regalia or the dastar. Some clothing such as ponchos, kimonos or sombreros are items of clothing that would typically receive criticism from majority culture when worn outside in day-to-day suburbia.
These things are intimate and personal parts of minority cultures’ daily identity and daily expression of culture. Because of this, these areas are off limits for the majority population or people that aren’t of that specific culture.
For individuals who might be considering as dressing up as a belly dancer, a Cherokee princess or Mexican ranchero: perhaps go for a classic skeleton, sexy vampire or Dwight Schrute impersonation.
Let’s make this a fun and spooky Halloween for everyone — and remember, a culture is not a costume.
Story by: Alex Greenwell
Photos Courtesy of Southern Utah University