Halloween appropriation: Cultures are not costumes

By Kayla Anderson

The leaves are changing, pumpkin-flavored everything is trending and fall’s first big holiday is quickly approaching. Halloween is one of the most widely celebrated holidays of the year, bringing in billions of dollars annually, a hefty amount of which comes from the costume industry.

While character costumes such as princesses and pirates top the list of Halloween ensembles, culturally-based costumes don’t fall far behind.

Cultural appropriation, when one culture borrows or adapts elements of another culture, is one of the most negative aspects of the Halloween season. The exploitation of another’s traditions has been ignored for far too long. Culturally insensitive costumes need to be removed from shelves because these garments marginalize the groups from whom they are appropriated.

Although cultural appropriation is an established phenomenon, many wonder how it can be damaging. It is harmful because it leads to the erasure of people’s cultures. When the majority culture takes components from a minority culture, it is done out of context, thus diminishing the component’s original meaning.

The degradation of a culture for the sake of dressing up is not fair to the afflicted. People are not costumes.

One of the most appropriated cultures during Halloween is that of Native Americans. Retailers push “Indian” costumes that are over-sexualized, cheap and unauthentic in their designs.

Business Wire names Party City as the No. 1 Halloween retailer in North America. The store is also one of the leaders in offensive costumes with 69 Native American themed costumes, where there is at least one “Native” costume in the top 15 sellers for teens, women and toddlers.

These costumes imitate Native American clothing with beads, feathers and fringe ” turning them into characters.

According to Native American Technology and Art, depending on the location, origin and style of the garment, beads on Native American dress have many different meanings. Beading on and off garments can be used to identify leaders and warriors. Bead use is also extended to personal aesthetics, group identity, currency and rites of passage in Native American communities.

When non-Native American people make and wear unauthentic headdresses, garments and jewelry without regard to their meaning, it is demeaning. Taking Native American dress out of context and rebranding it as something casual and trivial undermines and erases the traditions of an entire civilization.

Native Americans are not the only group to have their culture mocked. Other popular cultures appropriated on Halloween include Mexican, East Asian, Middle Eastern and more. During the Halloween season no culture is exempt from being appropriated and disrespected.

Dressing up as a Mexican man, a geisha or a sheik is treating human beings as characters and exploiting them as a joke, when in reality they are members of an ever-present culture. In addition, these costumes rely heavily on stereotypes, many of them negative. When people dress as tequila shooters, Indian American princesses and suicide bombers, it reduces the image of an entire race to one stereotypical caricature.

The erasure of minority cultures in North America dates back to when Europeans invaded the land, oppressed the indigenous people, repressed their culture and impressed their own ideals on them. The integration of white culture continued onward from there and will undoubtedly continue in the future.

Old methods of cultural erasure are enslavement, religious conversion and forcing everyone to speak English. New ways of cultural erasure include taking the shared ideas and practices of a culture still very much in existence and degrading them.

Some may argue that adopting another’s culture is simply a fashion choice. While someone’s culture should never be used to play dress up on Halloween, there is a way to wear certain items without being disrespectful.

The distinction between appropriation and appreciation lies within the cultural context of the clothing. If it has sacred or religious meaning, then it is not to be worn for Halloween. If it is casual or ornamental it should be portrayed in the cultural context of its source material at an appropriate time and place.

The 2015 Met Gala theme was ‘China: Through the Looking Glass,’ a theme that almost begged designers to showcase their takes on red carpet racism. While many Western designers took the bait and dressed their muses in oriental stereotypes such as dragons, chopsticks and winged eyeliner, one look stood out among the rest. Singer and songwriter Rihanna respectfully adhered to the theme by seeking out Chinese designer, Guo Pei. By researching and utilizing a Beijing-based designer, Rihanna found a way to honor a culture without degrading it.

Dressing up as someone else’s culture should not be an option. Retailers should not sell costumes that are culturally insensitive. As for everyday wear, it would do one well to think twice before offhandedly adopting elements from someone else’s culture.

Kayla Anderson is passionate about social justice.

Halloween Appropriation

Robert Diep / The Poly Post

Halloween Appropriation

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