It’s Not Just a Costume

Halloween does not justify cultural appropriation

By Taylore Fox | October 16th, 2017

MondayÕs UNLV Around the World was the first event of International Education Week, featuring food, music and performances from diverse cultures.

It’s that time of year again when the leaves change color, midterms rear their ugly heads and the temperature suddenly drops. It is also almost the time for Halloween, when we throw out any remaining sense of racial/ethnic/cultural courtesy that (arguably) exists every other day of the year. Instead, choose a stereotype to embrace and call it a costume.


Racial and cultural courtesy is a little rocky in general, but on Halloween, forget about it.


On Oct. 5, Students Organizing Diversity Activities (SODA) hosted an event called “My Culture Is Not a Costume,” a discussion between students and staff about cultural appreciation versus appropriation and how stereotypes are rejected and simultaneously embraced by mainstream culture.


This event is especially important with Halloween approaching, when cultural significance is forgotten and history is erased from our minds in the name of fun.


Cultural appropriation happens all the time, from the Kardashians wearing cornrows, to Dolce & Gabbana launching a line of abayas (loose, robe-like dresses worn by some Muslim women) in 2016 to Marc Jacobs non-ethnic models wearing rainbow-colored dreadlocks on the runway last spring. But on Halloween, it’s different. Halloween provides the perfect excuse to hide behind: “It’s just a costume.”


But to someone else, it’s not “just a costume.” It’s a culture, most likely a marginalized or underrepresented community of color. Appropriation implies that these marginalized cultures can only gain validation when they are accepted into that mainstream — i.e., white — culture. They’re criticized and rejected and then selectively embraced, only when it suits a white person’s need for “artistic expression,” like a fashion show, or for entertainment, like a Halloween costume.


We erase the history and significance of these cultures when we use them for selfish purposes. And more importantly, we reinforce a vicious system of cultural and racial stereotypes.


Dressing in a feathered headdress and wearing face paint and calling it a “Native American” costume lumps an entire race of indigenous peoples into one singular category and ignores their individual cultures and traditions. This same tendency exists for “Asian” cultures, as well. We fail to differentiate between them and instead categorize them under the umbrella of “Asian” instead, often misrepresenting and generalizing said cultures. For example, donning a short, tight, skimpy Geisha outfit sexualizes and fetishizes Japanese culture and warps the representation of their women.


Other costumes are also often worn as a joke, such those that depict Mexican or black culture. They are often exaggerated representations of Mexican and black stereotypes intended for humor, but it just turns these cultures into a joke instead. Dressing in sombreros and thick mustaches to represent Mexican culture or common “thug” or “gangster” costumes to represent black culture — some of which even involve blackface — turns these cultures into caricatures for amusement and perpetuation of stereotypes.


Stereotypes distort our perceptions of reality, of people. They make us think about other people in ways that don’t actually exist. They make us think about people not in the way they actually are — that is, in relation to their actual histories and values — but how they’re portrayed.


It’s usually not intentional. But that almost makes it worse. We’re so used to these stereotypes and appropriations that we just don’t notice the ways in which they can be harmful. We have to think about what they mean in relation to history and in relation to other people. There are definitely ways to represent different cultures in a positive way, but the line between appreciation and appropriation is very fine, and sometimes it’s not easy to know when you’re crossing it.


If it paints a negative, stereotypical or inaccurate profile of another culture, don’t wear it. If it’s not your culture, don’t use it as a costume, even if it’s just for a couple of hours on Oct. 31. More importantly, if it’s not your skin color, don’t even think about it.


What we don’t realize about these “costumes” is that they’re just products of entire systems of racism and warped representation that we already play into. They’re a side effect of a problem that runs much deeper and is much more vicious.


Wearing clothing or symbols with cultural or racial significance as costumes reinforces the idea that the people who actually wear them for cultural reasons are different on every other day of the year. These symbols are rejected or criticized for 364 days out of the year and then suddenly embraced on one specific day, when they’re turned into a joke or a stereotype. It turns them into “others,” especially next to other Halloween costumes like monsters and fictional characters.


So when you put on a Halloween costume that you may or may not intend to be offensive, you’re not just disguising yourself, but helping to disguise a system of racism and othering. Claiming that it’s just a costume disregards the experiences of marginalized communities, and no one has the right to do that.

Tags assigned to this article:
costumescultural appropriationcultureHalloween

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