Halloween and Cultural Appropriation

Ah yes, Halloween- the season of pumpkin-carving, candy, and wearing sexy versions of nuns, nurses, and farm animals. It is also the season of ignorant costume-wearers blatantly appropriating different cultures for a “cute” Instagram post. This taking of someone else’s culture without informed intent and credit, is called cultural appropriation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cultural appropriation is:

The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.

Examples you’ve seen of these are: white people wearing Japanese kimonos, Native traditional wear, psychiatric patient scrubs, Arab Sheiks, or anything related to blackface, brownface, yellowface, or redface (and the list goes on).

Why is this an issue you may ask? Two major reasons: 1.) it’s a continuation of the oppression of non-dominant cultures in America (in this case, BIPOC’s cultures) and 2.) it fails to properly acknowledge people for their own culture. When the dominant culture continues to suppress the voices of minorities and replaces it with their own “rendition” of the culture, this is a form of oppression. For example, in the NFL, the Washington Football Team, formally known as the Washington Redskins, had profited off of this derogatory name for Native Americans/Indigineous Peoples as well as the logo of an “Indian head” for about 87 years. This team retired the name and logo in July of 2020. Cultural appropriation also doesn’t credit people for their own culture. For example, when Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, both of whom have no attribution to Black culture, wore cornrows, they both received much praise for being “innovative” and “edgy.” But when Zendaya, who is biracial with African descent, wore dreadlocks, she received judgemental responses from critics saying she probably smelled of “patchouli” and “weed.”

And a bonus reason as to why cultural appropriation is an issue: it reinforces stereotypes. Stereotypes are extremely harmful to a minority group because they oversimplify the culture and make it one-dimensional. They eliminate the need to be informed about someone else’s culture and thus leads to more ignorance and misinformation. Examples of these stereotypes include popularized Halloween costumes of the Native American chief, the Japanese “geisha,” or Arab sheikh. I guarantee most of the people you see wearing these costumes for Halloween have no ties to its original culture.

Heidi Klum
Heidi Klum dressed as Hindu Goddess Kali, 2008
Chris Brown
Chris Brown dressed as a “terrorist”, 2012

There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation; it’s all behind the intent of the dominant group. If someone is truly interested in learning about someone else’s culture, they would take the time to understand the history and truths of the culture while embracing them in a respectful manner and giving credit where it’s due. This is the essence of cultural appreciation. Taking an aspect of someone’s culture for personal gain, to mock the culture, and doesn’t actively seek to understand it is cultural appropriation.

So for Halloween this year, think twice before putting on that Day of The Dead costume. Make sure your costume doesn’t make fun of, demean, or sexualize someone else’s culture. And as always, be sure you’re celebrating Halloween safely and respectfully- preferably virtually too.

This blog was inspired by @thepeahceproject on Instagram’s post on Halloween and Cultural Appropriation. Be sure to check out their other posts here: www.instagram.com/thepeahceproject/

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