Halloween is a beloved holiday in the United States among all age groups. Costumes, candy, and, consumption; it’s the trifecta of American holidays. But what happens when the costumes go too far, and cross the line between acceptable and offensive? That’s when cultural appropriation comes in.
Cultural appropriation is taking aspects of one culture (traditions, clothing and costumes, beliefs) and exploiting them in your culture for your personal gains. A common form of cultural appropriation is when mainstream culture, which in the U.S. is white/European culture, takes aspects of different cultures from people they’ve colonized or oppressed. Cultural appropriation if harmful because it enforces negative stereotypes, mocks and disrespects “nonwhite” cultures, undermines populations of people who have already been taken advantage of and suffered from colonialism and oppression, it has the potential to inflict violence against certain population, and it alienates cultures.
But isn’t there a way to incorporate aspects of one culture into another in a safe and harmless way? There is, and that’s called cultural appreciation. Cultural appreciation is a mutual sharing of cultures. It is difficult to distinguish between appropriation and appreciation, but these matters should be approached carefully. For more information, I suggest looking at this article from Everyday Feminism, Zendaya’s expanation , and this article from the Huffington Post. Cultural appropriation is especially rampant during Halloween, when children and young adults are dressing in costumes. Wearing costumes is my favorite part of Halloween because it allows you to be as creative and crafty as you want. But sometimes costumes go too far. Have you ever seen someone (or done this yourself), dressed as a Native American or “Mexican”? While these costumes may not seem outwardly offensive, they are prime examples of cultural appropriation.
I’ve found some examples of popular Halloween costumes that appropriate different cultures.
Native American Costumes
One of the most popular Halloween costumes in the United States are Native Americans. Women especially like to dress as Native “princesses,” wearing short fringe dresses and their hair in braids. It may seem like a good idea to dress as a Native American for Halloween on the outside, but doing so is extremely racist.
Check out the costumes I found below from Party City, Halloween Costumes, and Costume Supercenter.
While dressing as a Native American may make you feel creative and worldly, it has very harmful stereotypes against Native men and women. According to this presentation by Victoria Ybanez, Native American women are more than 2x likely to be raped than women of any other race/ethnicity. 1 in 3 American/Alaskan Native women will be raped in their lifetime. Native women are 50% more likely to be the victims of violent crime than black males aged 12 and over. And, 1 in 33 Native men will be a victim of attempted or completed rape in his lifetime. More statistics can be read here in a report from the Futures Without Violence organization.
Look at the phrasing used to describe the costumes above. One says, “In many Native American tribes, women were extremely powerful. They were engaged in warfare and participated in politics, which Europeans viewed as male-oriented activities. If you’re more interested in war than basket-weaving, then you’ll love staging an attack in this Sexy Cherokee Warrior Indian Adult Costume!” Another description was even worse; “No wonder the British refused to leave. One look at you, and they were sold on this place now called America. Sure, things could have gone differently, but even the Trojan War started over a beautiful woman.”
Women wearing the costumes are also exploited, as many of the costumes offer little coverage and add to the sexualization of both Native women AND the woman wearing the costume. These costumes aren’t “cute”; they’re racist and degrading. With costumes like these, it’s no wonder Native women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than women from any other race/ethnicity.
Additionally, feathers and paint have symbolic meaning in Native culture. It’s extremely disrespectful to wear them, with no knowledge about their symbolism, for the sake of a costume. So please refrain from dressing as a Native this Halloween season, whether you’re male or female. If you need further proof that dressing as a Native American for Halloween is a bad idea, check out this Tumblr.
Mexican and Dia des los Muertos Costumes
Another culture the mainstream U.S. appropriates during Halloween is Mexico. Many people like to dress as racist interpretations of Mexicans or “illegal aliens.” Check out the two costumes below from Costume Craze and Amazon.
These two costumes promote harmful stereotypes poking fun at Mexicans. The costumes show Mexicans as riding donkeys, carrying guns, wearing nothing but sombreros and ponchos, and having the “iconic Mexican” moustache. These costumes are literally parodying Mexican people (“This funny Hey Amigo Mexican Costume…”). Being Mexican is not something to parody and make fun of. The woman in the second costume is also being sexualized, similarly to the Native American women costumes, and can lead to violence against Mexican women.
Mexican and “illegal alien” costumes make light of a very harsh reality for thousands of illegal immigrants from Mexico. It is very easy to joke about a life-or-death situation when you are very privileged within the safety of your home country. You can read more about “chola” style and the harms of appropriating Mexican culture with this article from The Guardian.
Many people in the U.S. also appropriate the important Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos is a festival where Mexican and Latino populations honor their dead relatives and friends. This celebration is a very important cultural experience for these populations, which you can read more about here. Check out the below costume from Amazon.
When people in the U.S. wear sugar skull makeup and dress up for Day of the Dead as a part of their costumes, with no understanding of the cultural significance behind these traditions, it is very offensive. It may be fun to wear sugar skull makeup, but if you have no connection to the actual culture and are only exploiting it for your own benefit, that’s cultural appropriation. You can read more about the harmful effects here, here, and here.
Black Culture Costumes
Black culture is another commonly appropriated culture during Halloween in the U.S. Even though it may seem blatantly obvious that dresses as an “African” is offensive (and crossing a line), there are still people in the U.S. that do not understand it’s offensive. Check out images below from Bossip http://bossip.com/859181/race-matters-white-teens-in-blackface-costumes-respond-to-backlash-from-black-community-worry-about-finding-your-dad/, Racism Review http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2013/10/31/whats-up-with-racism-and-halloween/, and Amazon http://www.amazon.com/California-Costumes-Womens-Ghetto-Fab/dp/B003Y8YQN2.
The above “costumes” are racist for many reasons. The first image incorporates blackface, which has historical racist connotations (and is never okay). According to the website,
“Every immigrant group was stereotypes on the music hall stage during the 19th Century, but the history of prejudice, hostility, and ignorance towards black people has insured a unique longevity to the stereotypes. White America’s conceptions of Black entertainers were shaped by minstrelsy’s mocking caricatures and for over one hundred years the belief that Blacks were racially and socially inferior was fostered by legions of both white and black performers in blackface.”
The second image makes a joke of a very serious issue among the African-American community; violence against black Americans (especially from the police). The costume makes light of Trayvon Martin’s death, a 17-year old boy killed in his Florida neighborhood in 2012. You can read more about his murder here.
The third image mocks the natural hair movement, which emphasizes that eurocentric beauty and hair standards are not the only hair standards. “Ghetto” wigs mock black women who wear their hair natural as a way to rebel against dominant society and its unrealistic expectations for them. Remember that white American culture has a long and violent history of exploiting African Americans.
Don’t be part of the problem this Halloween. If you want to read more on the issue, try here and here.
Geisha costumes are highly offensive to Asian cultures because they not only lead to the sexualization of the women wearing the costumes, and the fetishization of Asian women, but they also undermine the cultural significance of Geishas. According to this article, Geishas are very important entertainers. Contrary to popular Western beliefs, Geishas are not prostitutes, and do not engage in paid sex.
Look at the below Geisha costumes, and recognize that they are both racist and highly sexualized. The costumes are from Halloween Costumes, Fancy Dress Shack, and Halloween Costumes.
Sexualizing Geishas (and Asian women) has lead to serious culture consequences. According to the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, 41-61% of Asian women have reported physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. In addition, Asian women are increasingly fetishized, leading to increasing statistics in violence and sexual assault. Read more about the effects of sexualizing and fetishizing Asian and Pacific Islander women with the websites listed above.
You may feel “sexy” or “exotic” dressing as a Geisha, but you’re actually misconstruing and disrespecting a centuries old culture with traditions your education system never bothered to teach you about. So put something else on, your ignorance is showing.
Arab or “Terrorist” Costume
Again, it may seem obvious that dressing as a “terrorist” is a bad choice for Halloween, but there are still people out there who disagree. Muslims and Arabs are an entire population of people that are already alienated by Western culture.
Check out the below costumes from Amazon and Amazon.
There are many, many things wrong with the costumes above. In regards to the male costume, it simply mocks Arabic and Muslim clothing. The entire culture is seen as a costume, dehumanizing its people and making them easier target for violence and aggressions.
The female costume is even more offensive because it not only sexualizing the woman wearing it, but it also completely disrespects female Muslim attire. Many Muslim and Arabic women (and women of that culture) choose to wear the headscarf, which is very much a part of their religion and culture. This costume mocks the burqa, and makes light of the fact that many Muslim women do not have a choice in wearing it (however, it is noted that not all Muslim women are forced to wear the burqa).
Additionally, these costumes help add to the growing Islamophobia in the United States and other Western countries. This is a very serious issue, and dressing as a “terrorist” for Halloween may seem innocent enough, but it have very ingrained cultural connotations. Even if you disagree with violence and discrimination against Muslims, you are adding to the increased violence and aggression against Muslims and Arabs living in Western countries.
You can find out more about the growing Islamophobia in the U.S. (and other Western countries) here and here. Do not underestimate this problem, as it has grown more serious in recent years.
And these are only some examples of racist Halloween costumes. In short, do not appropriate other cultures for the sake of a Halloween costume. If you need help determining if your costume is appropriating another culture, try reading this article for more costume suggestions. Halloween is a fun tradition in the U.S. that you have every right to take part in, but not at the sake of someone else’s culture.
Don’t be that person.
Note: all photos are not our own and belong to the listed source. We are not trying to degrade the companies that make and sell these costumes, we just believe that consumers should vote with their wallets and not support costumes as offensive as these and then maybe they wouldn't be profitable to sell. Just please don't sue us.