Two weeks ago, like almost everyone I know, I caved. I finally watched Squid Game on Netflix. The show is a sensation and it is the most viewed series on Netflix for good reason. After watching the show, the TikTok algorithm did what it does best: read my mind. I saw this TikTok on my FYP and realized that once again, people will use Halloween as an excuse to be blatantly racist.
In the caption of the video, YoungMi, the creator of the TikTok, writes that it is “totally okay to put on a tracksuit and a wig, just don’t get racist with it.”
There is a clear distinction between putting on a costume and putting on a culture. Dressing up as an Asian character is perfectly fine but taping your eyes back to look Asian is racist.
This little guide can be applied to popular Halloween costumes in recent years as well. Wearing a Princess Jasmine costume is totally okay, but getting a spray tan to look browner is racist.
Consumers or costume-wearers are not the only ones guilty of ignoring the very clear line between culture and costume. Stores that sell costumes like Party City and Spirit Halloween continue to sell outfits that are not only cultural appropriative but promote harmful stereotypes. The year after Trump was elected, Party City sold a costume called “Trump’s Wall,” as if the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment was not high enough. Party City received some criticism, but continued to prioritize profit over this racist costume. Last year, thousands of signatures were collected to stop Spirit Halloween from selling a “Pocahottie” costume. Native activists spoke up about how their rights and land are being actively stolen, yet colonizers are dressing up as them for Halloween and oversexualizing their cultural wear.
This year, Spirit Halloween is under fire selling “afro wigs,” implying that Black hair is a costume. A TikToker made a video about this by pointing out every time she saw an example of cultural appropriation at Spirit Halloween. It is not that Black hair by itself is cultural appropriation, but selling Black wigs to a largely white consumer market can be a bit tricky. Another point of contention is that the models on the covers of the packages are white. Spirit Halloween is marketing Black hair to white people, a surefire recipe for disaster.
Cultural appropriation is also harmful because at the end of the day, the person wearing the culture can take it off. It is not fair for people to take on the traits and mannerisms of a different group of people and be able to leave those traits and mannerisms behind the next day. People of color cannot take off their culture or erase themselves to assimilate into whiteness. Culture is an integral part of people’s identities and oversexualizing it or misrepresenting it can perpetuate stereotypes.
Something as simple as putting on a costume leads to people of color being seen as white passing when they are clearly not. The idea that white individuals can put on and take off cultures is a privilege that people of color do not have. Their day to day lives are the culture, and in the context of cultural appropriation, people of color are the costume. The actions of cultural appropriation have real consequences.