Why and how to avoid cultural appropriation this Halloween

Halloween is my favorite holiday.

It’s the one day when we can be anything we want. It allows us to live our wildest fantasies, explore new identities and express ourselves through ridiculous clothes, makeup and wigs.

Unfortunately, it’s also often an excuse for people to wear offensive and insensitive costumes, many of which fall in the category of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the act of using elements of someone else’s culture without their permission, often for the purpose of fashion or in this case, a Halloween costume.

We see the cultural appropriation debate throughout the year, like when a Kardashian sports cornrows or when there’s a flurry of inappropriate headdresses and cultural accessories ignorantly worn by people at Coachella.

The debate really heats up during Halloween. Some may argue that our society has become too politically correct and turned a fun holiday into a political battleground. But, at its core, cultural appropriation is not a political debate or a liberal tactic to take away self expression.

Cultural appropriation is about mockery, misunderstanding and the erasure of minority cultures.

The first problem with cultural appropriation is that it’s often rooted in disrespect. Often times, when someone wears a costume that portrays another culture or race, it has been created on the basis of grotesque stereotypes. For example, Native American costumes are typically whitewashed caricatures of what indigenous clothing actually is.

Cultural appropriation also erases the experiences that minorities live with every day. You likely don’t understand the oppression, history or experiences associated with a culture you don’t belong to. Many people are mocked or bullied growing up because of their culture’s food, clothing and traditions. In the article “Cultural Appropriation at Halloween: My Culture is Not a Costume” by Jessica Andrews for Teen Vogue, women of various identities unpacked this issue, speaking about their experiences being mocked for their afros or their hijabs.  

As a Bangladeshi woman, I can also attest to this. Growing up, I saw many television shows or peers mock the “dots” that South Asian women wear on their foreheads. Now, I see celebrities like Kendall Jenner wearing those same dots, known as bindis, to music festivals as a fashion statement. Americans can’t make fun of minority traditions and then later use them as part of a Halloween costume. It’s offensive, insensitive and erases the real struggles that people of color face.

It’s important not to confuse cultural appropriation and appreciation. Cultural appreciation can be trying a Japanese recipe at home, using an Italian espresso machine or wearing shoes you bought in Mexico. Cultural appreciation is respectfully borrowing and learning from a culture, which is always okay.

Now the question becomes what types of costumes you shouldn’t wear this Halloween. Don’t wear a costume that is just another culture or race. If you roll up to Party City and the costume description is just a race or culture, such as “Native American girl” or “Egyptian queen,” it’s safe to say you should put that back on the shelf.

Other examples of these costumes could be a geisha, a Bollywood actress or anything involving a mustache with a sombrero. These costumes, while appearing playful and lighthearted, usually just flatten the people of these cultures into overdone tropes.

Cultural appropriation also often occurs when people try to portray celebrities or characters of different races. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dressing up as your favorite character from a TV show just because they’re a different race. The key is in your execution.

For example, if you’re dressing up as someone who has a darker skin tone than you, please do not for any reason try to create this skin tone on yourself using makeup. This is worse than cultural appropriation and often falls under the categories of black or brown face, which is very racist.

Another example is when people wear African-American hairstyles, such as cornrows, afros, box braids or dreadlocks. Some people may say a hairstyle doesn’t belong to a particular culture, but African Americans have faced stigmatization and ridicule surrounding their hair throughout history from the media and society. We shouldn’t trivialize their struggles by wearing these hairstyles as part of our costumes.

The bottom line is there’s no reason for cultural appropriation. Someone’s culture is not your costume. It’s a part of a real person’s identity that they carry it with them every single day, not just when it’s convenient or fashionable.

Thanks to the memes, TV shows, movies and political debauchery that 2018 brought us, there are thousands of creative, funny and culturally relevant costumes you can come up with or purchase at a store. You can still turn heads and win that costume contest without offending anyone or demeaning their culture.

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