Halloween is the one day a year that people can take on an identity outside their own. For some, this means dressing up as an imaginary character, but for others, this means mimicking or mocking real-world marginalized identities. As Halloween approaches, it’s imperative to consider how certain costumes push the boundaries of cultural appropriation and disrespect.
Cultural appropriation is the exploitation of the “creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices” of marginalized communities by privileged, socially-dominant people (Oxford Reference). In order to determine whether something is cultural appropriation instead of sincere appreciation, one must consider the motives of the person partaking in a culture outside their own. Are they being respectful? Are they exploiting the culture for profit or financial gain? Are they employing negative stereotypes about the culture?
• Do not wear a costume modeled after a marginalized group.
• Reevaluate your or your peers’ costumes to ensure that they do not disrespect or perpetuate stereotypes about a culture. Learn how to confront a peer wearing a culturally insensitive costume.
Appreciating a culture means understanding and respecting its history. Marginalized communities generally regard their culture as sacred because they have had to resist cultural genocide in order to hold onto it. Non-marginalized people partaking in an aspect of a marginalized community’s culture without experiencing the plight and oppression that goes along with it is a privilege in itself. Minorities are oppressed for aspects of their culture that non-minorities are able to indulge in — or ridicule —without penalty. Halloween highlights a power dynamic: socially dominant groups can mock people of color, the poor, and racialized subcultures like hip hop.
Racial and ethnic stereotypes are often utilized for the sake of “comical” costumes. Though there are over 500 tribes across the nation, Indigenous communities are depicted with a generic costume of feathers, braids, and fringe based on the Plains tribes’ cultural attire (Potawatomi). Not all Indigenous peoples used headdresses, and those that did had distinct styles of headdresses associated with culturally significant ceremonies and traditions. They’re an example of a sacred cultural piece that is only deemed acceptable when it is mimicked for the sake of a Halloween costume.
Culturally-insensitive Halloween costumes are not always as blatant as wearing a Native American headdress. Costumes that employ any stereotype of a marginalized community or mimic something of cultural significance qualify as cultural appropriation. Marginalized communities include those oppressed on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and physical ability, in addition to racial and ethnic groups.
Class appropriation is often overlooked when discussing cultural appropriation. Dressing up as a hobo, a homeless person, for Halloween has become commonplace — mocking low-income people and stereotyping their appearance. The “hobo” costume generally consists of ill-fitting clothing, messy hair, dirty face makeup, and cardboard signs with phrases like “will work for money.” The costume is dehumanizing and mocks unhoused people who cannot afford basic necessities at a time when homelessness is consistently increasing.
Subcultures associated with people of color are also misrepresented during Halloween. Hip hop culture is often reduced to baggy clothing, grills, chains, and fake tattoos for Halloween costumes. Upon its inception, hip hop served as a creative outlet for African Americans to discuss their plight. The hip hop movement emerged from the Bronx during the 1970s. The city was experiencing social turmoil due to white migration to the suburbs and a nationwide recession that significantly impacted New York’s industrial sector.
As despair struck the city, many Black people turned to music. The influx of Jamaican immigrants during this time heavily influenced the music that laid the groundwork for hip hop (Icon Collective). Though the genre has evolved over time and white people have begun to embrace it, hip hop is still widely viewed as “ghetto” and “low class” because it is dominated by Black people. White people derive humor from using hip hop, an art form created to resist white supremacy, as a costume because it is a means of mocking low-income Black communities. The satisfaction white people receive from caricaturing communities opposite of theirs is exploitative and reduces hip hop to a set of stereotypes.
Contrary to popular belief, white people are not the only demographic that can partake in cultural appropriation; any privileged or socially-dominant group can. When Halloween finally arrives, it’s important to remind yourself of the privileges you hold as you consider different costumes. Before settling on a costume idea, double-check that you are not caricaturing a marginalized community or disrespecting something of cultural significance. If you are unsure about whether or not your costume is culturally insensitive, simply find another option; it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are a housed individual who does not identify as Black or Indigenous, it is your responsibility to hold them accountable this Halloween. KEY TAKEAWAYS
• Cultural appreciation differs from appropriation because it implies that a culture is being respected and understood as opposed to exploited and mocked.
• Cultural appropriation is not limited to racial and ethnic groups; any marginalized community or subculture can be appropriated.
• Halloween is not an excuse to perpetuate stereotypes about marginalized groups.