By Elizabeth Scarbrough
It’s the most wonderful time of the year – Halloween! Hope you have now planned your costume and a safe way to celebrate COVID. But if not, I’m here to discuss the issue of cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes. You’ve probably heard people say, “It’s a culture, not a costume” – but what does that mean? What is cultural appropriation and why should I care?
The term cultural appropriation covers a range of behaviors – from the theft of tangible cultural property (for example, buying looted artifacts) to the theft of ideas (for example, passing off ideas from another culture as your own) , or use the voice or style of another culture like yours. The philosopher Erich Hatala Matthes designates these three types of cultural appropriation as flight, abuse, and false declaration. When we discuss Halloween costumes, we are discussing the last of these three – the misrepresentation.
Examples of culturally appropriate Halloween costumes are – unfortunately – everywhere. Just look at your local Halloween stores (like Spirit) that advertise pre-packaged sets with names like “princess pow wow” or “tequila shooter guy” or “geisha lady”. These costumes trade on a characteristic of cultural appropriation – outsiders from a particular culture use resources (for example, traditional clothing or perceived traditional clothing) of a culture that is not their own. But that alone does not take us to cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is also a question of power. Note that the Halloween costumes I mentioned earlier represent minority groups – it’s not accidental. Problematic cultural appropriation is the result of power imbalances. And in the United States, these imbalances often fall along racial lines. A white American disguised as a “powwow princess” can only be interpreted in the context of settler colonialism. But (backdoor) appropriation is not always a question of race or ethnicity. There is a growing movement against wearing costumes depicting inmates, homeless people, and people with mental illness, as these costumes also trade an imbalance of power. As Matthes (quoted above) puts it “fix the power problem, solve the appropriation problem”.
The University of Denver’s “We Are a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign displayed flyers on campus that featured a white woman wearing a headdress and tomahawk. The poster read: “You think it’s harmless, but you’re not the target.” The evil here is to stereotype a culture (false representation). Wearing this type of costume testifies to a morally culpable ignorance of indigenous peoples and their practices. In our ignorance, we could also wear religious iconography casually or disrespectfully (sacrilegious appropriation). We also run the risk of not only essentializing their culture, but of representing a living culture as “something of the past”.
Plus, a lot of these hypersexual costumes are identities. This reaffirms pernicious stereotypes with tangible consequences. Shannon Speed, Director of Native American Studies at UCLA (and a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) said, “If there was an awareness in this country of the huge problem of violence against Native women and the thousands of missing and murdered aboriginal women of this country, they should stop and think about what it might mean to wear a sexy Indian costume. ”
Ghouls just wanna have fun, so I’m going to be really scary this Halloween dressing up in a spooky costume. If you stop to think about the most creative Halloween costume you’ve ever come across, I doubt you are thinking of the ones discussed in this article. Culturally appropriate costumes are lazy at best and racist at worst. So give them something to talk about with a creative, inappropriate costume. Don’t be a jerk this Halloween and let’s jumpstart this party!