Watch Your Halloween Costume: The Prevalence of Cultural Appropriation

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Social Justice and Equity representatives post guidelines in houses to avoid culturally appropriative costumes.

Photo by Carolyn Brown ’16 | Social Justice and Equity representatives post guidelines in houses to avoid culturally appropriative costumes.

Lourdes Delgado ’19
Contributing Writer

Now that Halloween has come and gone, we can take a moment to reflect on the cringe-worthy costumes we saw either in person or circulating around the internet. Whenever this holiday rolls around, cultural appropriation, which occurs all year round, becomes far more prevalent. Shops are stocked with a variety of costumes, some of which shouldn’t even be costumes at all. A “sexy Indian” costume is on the shelves, Kimonos complete Geisha outfits and “adult Bollywood beauty” costumes are available at Party City (and can be found on their website under the category “International Costumes”).

If it weren’t enough that someone’s heritage was being packaged and sold to wear on Halloween night, the names labeled on the insulting garments are a greater blow, especially for Native Americans, who have a long history of facing injustices such as genocide and robbery. Their portrayal on this holiday further degrades them, as their women are represented in a sexualized manner and their traditional feather headdresses are turned into fashion statements. Costume stores have made it incredibly easy to appropriate other cultures, which is an alarming sign that racism has become the norm in America.

Recently, the president of the University of Louisville hosted a party in which he and his guests were dressed as stereotypical Mexicans, wearing sombreros and bushy mustaches and holding maracas. The president even went the extra mile and added a colorful, striped poncho.

My initial reaction? Disgust. How could someone think this was a good idea? And how could this come from someone who is supposed to be leading a place of education? Not only is it demeaning to dress up as another ethnicity, but  also reinforces stereotypes of that ethnicity. Summing up  Mexican culture in a three-part costume (sombrero + bushy mustache + maracas = Mexican) degrades its heritage and dehumanizes the people of that culture. People of color are turned into a caricature. This costume was insensitive to Mexicans and the Hispanic community as a whole — both immigrants and American-born Hispanics.

This is just one of many instances in which this kind of behavior has received backlash. People have gotten too comfortable with wearing a culture as a mask for a day because no one has stepped up to point out that it is offensive until now. Those who say “It’s not a big deal” or that “Everyone nowadays is just too sensitive” aren’t recognizing the greater effect cultural appropriation has.

When self-proclaimed hipsters wear Native American headdresses to Coachella, they are ripping objects away from their cultural significance. When women wear bindis as a fashion accessory, they are appreciating it for its aesthetic purpose, not for the meaning behind it. Wearing clothing from other cultures does not mean you are honoring or respecting those cultures; you are picking apart what you like and using it to look more “exotic.”

Normalizing this behavior is putting cultures in danger of losing what they take pride in. Examples of this already exist: the word “chai” has been added to American vocabulary through Starbucks’ influence. It is important that we stay vigilant to avoid stealing parts of someone’s heritage. By policing those who cross the line, we teach them the reason why items packed with significant cultural context lose all meaning when used as accessories.

Halloween gives us a chance to be something completely different. When it comes to costume ideas, the possibilities seem endless. However, it should be recognized that there are limits that should be set in order to avoid the perpetuation of racial stereotypes or the theft of ethnic traditional items for the sake of fashion.

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