As Halloween comes up, those who celebrate are planning out their outfits, making sure they’re party ready. But just how ready are we? October 31st is the one day a year that college students can truly let loose and be whatever they want without having to worry about someone passing judgement. But when these costumes cross cultural lines, it becomes not only disrespectful, but hazardous to those who actually belong to the culture.
Have you ever seen someone dressed in an “American Indian” costume with the feather headdress and the cute little beads and thought you might want to try that out? Have you been at that party where people walk around in sombreros because they’re Mexican? Do you know anyone who has ever darkened their skin tone for the night in order to look a little more “ethnic”? If any of these resound with you even somewhat, then you may have witnessed cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the temporary adoption or use of elements of one culture as a largely negative phenomenon. It comes in multiple forms, and often those who practice it are in positions of power that they themselves cannot realize.
But why are costumes such as these so offensive?
Racial stereotypes and slurs have are constantly changing and have always been up for debate. This is the land of the free, and thus everyone is granted their freedom of speech and expression, but this has not always been the case. In the beginnings of our country, not all people were free. It started with men with property, leading on to men without property, and so on and so forth. But people of color have only recently in American history have gained the same privilege. People of color weren’t even considered people, and due to long-held xenophobia, they were not only socially ostracized, but considered the same level as animals and made to work with no rights. Indigenous Americans had their land invaded, were infected with diseases, forced to work, and still not given basic rights. And it goes the same way for indigenous Mexicans. Asian people who came into America weren’t given the same opportunities as other people and scraped by to find jobs. These people, though they do have rights now, inherently have less of a voice than the white population. This part of the foundation of the white privilege that allows for these appropriations to take place.
Race and culture are different things, but they are much related to one another. One’s culture is the thing they cling to in times of hardship, in fun events, and simply because. Culture is more than just consumerism in any account. Culture is how we come to realize who we are. It’s more than just the food one eats, the clothes one wears, and the things they say. It’s the way you know that you have a community where you can feel at home, even if you don’t know everyone. That old spiritual that you and your friends make fun of because it sounds exaggerated? It was sung in the fields by the slaves who worked day in and day out in hopes of getting themselves a better part of the scraps of hog for the next big event. The way people have certain names that may make you giggle? They were adapted by those in hopes of a better life, or at least for a better opportunity for life.
If you really feel the need to do so, think of who you are hurting. Just because something may not be blatant doesn’t mean it is racist. By wearing these costumes and acting as if they are acceptable, you continue to perpetuate privilege while metaphorically spitting in the face of those who don’t have power to fight back. You allow yourself to be a walking stereotype for a night, continuing the subconscious messages that you have gained inherently throughout your life, and then at the end of the day, you get to take it off. It is impossible for one to empathize with the amount of oppression one has faced, especially in one night. The appropriation of culture for the night is a mocking of one’s struggles, diminishing them to nothing more than a caricature, while you retain your status as a well-rounded person. You get to retain your ability to be different, to be an individual while reducing entire peoples to tropes used to further push them down.
It is perfectly possible to dress up as someone from a different culture without appropriating one’s culture. It may take some research and looking, but as adults, one should at least have a basic understanding of what costume they are wearing anyway. So go ahead, be Kanye West, or Jane the Virgin, or Agent May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But if you have to step near any type of costume that contains the words “ethnic,” or “tribal,” or find yourself easing toward some paint, stop, take a look, and assess the way you look on October 31st this year.