Día de los Muertos is my favorite holiday to celebrate. My family and I take off to La Placita in Los Angeles. We walk around the ofrendas full of food offerings to departed loved ones and ancestors, take part in the Novenario procession and support small, Latino businesses.
For one day, people get to believe that angelitos have returned to Earth, spending time with passed family. It’s a beautiful tradition that has received more exposure over time. Los Angelenos are celebrating the holiday by donning face-painted calaveras, colorful dresses and suits, and making foods for dozens of people — all of which I had been content with.
I didn’t realize the extent of participation until walking through a costume store a few years ago. Just like much cultural attire, I found a row of “Sexy Day of the Dead” costumes with pictures of hypersexualized, light-skinned Latina or white women.
This portrayal was indicative of a larger issue. The cherished holiday of Día de los Muertos and other people of color’s cultural traditions have become nothing more than a chance for people outside of the culture to both dilute the meaning of those traditions and ignore the insensitivity that many costumes represent.
We should all know what cultural appropriation is. We should know that it is a violation to one’s culture to adopt and abuse its traditions, yet time and time again, there are groups that simply don’t understand the role power plays in this situation, or they’re too ignorant to care, going about their Halloween festivities as sexy Pocahontas.
But these groups use Halloween as a time to exploit cultures belonging to people of color. Wearing a sombrero with a fake mustache, painting your face as a geisha, putting on a Native American headdress or donning a “terrorist-inspired” turban and beard is disgusting and disrespectful. There is no acceptable time to portray these stereotypes; they are damaging to the integrity of the culture and refuse any chance for people to move beyond these misguided ideas of these groups.
Halloween fanatics and racists alike will disagree with me. There’s an argument for cultural globalization, that each culture’s traditions should be shared without malice against those who choose to wear specific, traditional attire.
Although the hope is that social relations will be the final reward, that probably won’t be the case as long as we have people wearing perverse versions of geishas and “gypsies.”
They also argue Halloween is a time to dress up; it’s a time to wear costumes in the spirit of pretend. People of color shouldn’t be offended that their attire is being worn during this holiday; instead, they should feel flattered, as it should be taken as a form of admiration for the culture.
Well, no. Halloween is not intended for either of those things. Just like with other cultures’ traditions, folks refuse to do research on their own culture’s holiday they’re celebrating. The root of Halloween lies in history. On the evening of Oct. 31, during the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, people would wear costumes and light bonfires to ward off the ghosts and demons that escaped from the afterlife.
You can’t hide from evil spirits in a “Sexy Eskimo” outfit.
Fox News notes Halloween as “one of the busiest times of the year for college social justice warriors,” and justifiably so. I don’t care if I’m being “too offended” when people think it’s okay to pervert one of my culture’s most respected traditions for the sake of having a “cute” or “hilarious” Halloween costume. I’m not afraid to call out both my peers and myself when we forget that the attire we choose is insensitive to people of color’s cultures.
And neither are colleges across the country.
University of Texas-Austin listed a neat little 29-point checklist with questions that remind costume wearers that their costume ideas can have harmful effects on the communities they are portraying. At Princeton University, part of their Conversation Circles series included a discussion on cultural appropriation on Halloween.
These colleges can be perceived as restricting Halloween costume choices, but come on; we’re adults. Like I noted earlier, we know what cultural appropriation is, and despite not having the intention of violating marginalized groups’ cultural beliefs with our portrayals, we do so as soon as we decide to put on that costume. There can be more to Halloween than reducing another’s culture to flimsy, cheap seasonal attire.