Cultural Appropriation & Halloween: Culture Not Costume

Halloween is just around the corner and so it’s time to have that talk again (although at this point, it really should go without saying). Here’s a refresher on cultural appropriation for those that are still confused.

Cultural appropriation is defined as “the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.”

Cultural appropriation is not to be confused with cultural exchange. While cultural exchange implies mutual understanding, appropriation is born out of power imbalances that establish a dominant culture.

Essentially, white people take practices and ways of being from other cultures and strip sacred traditions of their significance. Thus, these practices are reduced to something to be consumed by the dominant culture rather than experienced and felt by its respective culture. Not only is it disrespectful and demeaning, it is simply ignorant.

As activist Henrietta Marrie explains, “the western intellectual property rights system and the misappropriation of Indigenous knowledge without the prior knowledge and consent of Indigenous peoples evokes feelings of anger, or being cheated”.

Cultural appropriation exists in a variety of forms but often around Halloween, “it involves wearing ‘costumes’ that rely on specific cultural signifiers and stereotypes”. While most people don’t dress up with the intention of being offensive, appropriative costumes still sustain damaging stereotypes, often fuelling racism and discrimination.

“Our culture is not a costume,” said Calgarian Michelle Robinson. “We are real people with a real culture and depicting it incorrectly just adds to negative stereotypes and adds to violence we face.”

An award-winning Project Humanities initiative hosted its fourth annual symposium this spring on the subject of cultural appropriation run by Dr. Neal Lester, an English professor at Arizona State University. “Critical conversation about cultural appropriation, for me, is not about policing other people,” says Lester.

“It’s about policing one’s own actions and reexamining one’s own intentions and motivations. In the case of costumes, it’s about thinking outside the box of another’s cultural identity.”

Still confused? To reiterate a piece we wrote a couple years ago, ask yourself these questions of your Halloween costume:

  1. Are you using makeup to alter your natural skin tone? Such uses of makeup cannot be separated from their historical context
  2. Does the name of your costume include an ethnicity in the title? These are caricatures of a group of people, not costumes.
  3. Are you wearing garments or accessories traditional to a culture? Wearing a culture is not a fashion statement. There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation.
  4. Are you dressed as an offensive historical figure? Dressing as offensive historical figures can be construed as glorification, even if your costume is meant to be satirical. Just don’t.
  5. Is your costume “funny” because it mocks the real life experiences of others? Belittling the struggles of marginalized groups is never okay.

Is your costume offensive? Answer “yes” to any of the aforementioned questions and it likely is. If your costume raises any of these red flags, you should probably (DEFINITELY) reconsider wearing it.