Costumes and cultural appropriation: Just don’t do it

Illustration of two people in Halloween costumes, one of the costumes being culturally-appropriative
Irene Chen/File

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In case the quarantine life has you completely forgetting what day it is, I’m here to tell you that Halloween is just around the corner. We at the Clog want to remind you that while you’re brainstorming last-minute costumes, keep in mind that any costume is better than cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is an unacknowledged and inappropriate adoption of characteristics of a particular culture. It can be particularly harmful, especially when a socially dominant group adopts characteristics of a marginalized culture. While the harm done isn’t always intentional, it happens nonetheless. This is something that is entirely avoidable if you’re not careless, so make the right choice this Halloween and own up to it if you mess up. Here are some questions you can ask about your costume before this year’s spooky season reaches its climax on Oct. 31.

Am I dressed as a cultural trope?

Cultural tropes are extremely harmful stereotypes surrounding a particular ethnic group. Costumes that replicate cultural tropes imply that cultures are frozen in time. This close-minded worldview fails to see cultures as fluid and capable of change. For example, Indigenous groups have often been diminished into the “noble savage” trope. Indigenous people are not childlike, innocent or savage, but wearing a tribal-inspired costume reduces Indigenous cultures to this depiction, thus fueling that destructive narrative. 

Is this perpetuating stereotypes?

Even if your costume isn’t replicating a trope, you might still be subtly perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Stereotyping is extremely oppressive, no matter how harmless or funny it might seem. Even a stereotype that seems positive can place pressure and stigma on an individual. Marginalized cultures, ethnic groups or religions should not be used as a cheap punchline.

Does this costume include aspects from a culture that I do not belong to?

While you might want to include aspects from a specific culture in your costume simply out of admiration for it, it is best to avoid this. Since you are not a part of the culture, you might not realize if something you are doing is offensive or out of place. Some cultures have traditional garments that are used for very special occasions, and wearing them as a Halloween costume diminishes their meaning. It is wrong to dress as an ethnic group for fun on Halloween, especially when that group could have faced discrimination or persecution in the past. The bottom line is that an entire culture or race should never be reduced to a single costume. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that not every single member of the appropriated community will feel the same way, and that is completely fine. One individual might be extremely hurt, while another individual might be entirely unbothered. This is a result of everyone’s different lived experiences, and a person’s culture is never meant to define their every belief. We should never dictate how someone must feel toward the appropriation of their culture. That being said, if even one person might feel threatened, cheated or disrespected by your costume, don’t wear it. If you aren’t sure, or if you feel your costume could fall into a gray area, come up with a different plan! A good place to get started is this UC Berkeley-inspired Halloween costume guide. Happy spooky season, Bears!

Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].