Ah Halloween. The annual holiday which is host to trick or treating, carved pumpkins and controversial costumes. Around this time of year my social media is usually filled with posts of people who have come up with innovative ways to be offensive on Halloween. From costumes incorporating the Day of the Dead mask to people pretending to belong to a religious group they’re not a part of to blatant racism, such as blackface. It seems as though some people think that they are allowed to reinforce racial stereotypes and be culturally insensitive on Halloween, but who cares as it’s only fancy dress right? Well, I’m going to tell you why it’s bad to have a culturally inappropriate outfit this Halloween.
Cultural appropriation consists of people from a dominant culture adopting elements of a culture who have been institutionally oppressed by that dominant group, without their permission. One of the problems with cultural appropriation is that it seems to discredit the origins of things people of that culture have created. An example of this is when Kim Kardashian got Fulani braids, originating from Fulani tribe in Nigeria, and referred to them as “Bo Derrick braids” – insinuating it to be origin of Bo Derrick, a Caucasian actress.
A dominant culture picking and choosing elements from a marginalised group to incorporate, without ever understanding the struggles experienced by someone of that identity, reduces any significance it holds and turns it into a commodity with the sole purpose of being “fun” or “fashionable”. So, Kim Kardashian choosing to have a black hairstyle whilst black people have had negative experiences in the workplace, where they’ve been advised not to show their natural hair as it’s deemed to be unprofessional, is cultural appropriation.
“how can you depict your appreciation of another culture through a Halloween costume and not be offensive? The easy answer is, don’t bother”
So how can you depict your appreciation of another culture through a Halloween costume and not be offensive? The easy answer is, don’t bother. If you think it will cause offence, it probably will. Though, it is important to distinguish between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Cultural appreciation is respectful and prioritises the agency and choices of the marginalised group. For example, if my Bengali friend invited me to their wedding as a guest, and out of respect to the occasion I ask what it would be the best thing to wear. This is different to wearing a bindi or getting henna at a music festival because you think it looks cute.
Another question that may be posed is why it isn’t cultural appropriation for a cultural minority to adopt elements from a dominant culture? People from ethnic and religious minorities often wear cultural inventions by white people, such as jeans so isn’t it the same thing? Well, the difference is marginalised groups embrace elements of a dominant culture to survive in an environment where their experiences would be considerably different if they don’t. Assimilation is often not a choice, but a vital means of survival.
“seeing people use something that is central to both my culture and identity and turning it into something frivolous in an attempt to be fashionable, whether it is just for a day or not, is offensive”
Now, some of you may have read this and simply thought that this is going too far. Halloween is supposed to be fun and isn’t meant to be taken seriously, so why is someone like me taking offence to something as trivial as a Halloween costume? Of course I don’t want be the spoiler of fun and don’t think there is a problem with dressing up itself, but seeing people use something that is central to both my culture and identity and turning it into something frivolous in an attempt to be fashionable, whether it is just for a day or not, is offensive. Besides, going as a cat doesn’t seem that bad after all, right?