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Avoid Cultural Appropriation this Halloween

Before you start your Halloween festivities this year, let’s discuss an important topic regarding Halloween costumes: avoiding cultural appropriation.

Sadly, Halloween costumes have a shameful history regarding cultural appropriation. While I know most wouldn’t intentionally do this, appropriation results from a lack of education and normalized racism and discrimination.

This Halloween, let’s change that.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Susan Scafidi, a law professor from Fordham University, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

You may have recognized examples of appropriation in the past. After the release of “Moana”, Disney pushed out a kids’ “Maui costume” with tattooed sleeves atop a brown, skin-toned mesh costume. The issue revolved around the darkened skin tone and markings of the costume. The brown mesh essentially was racial brown-facing, defined by Dictionary.com as “makeup used to darken one’s face and other exposed skin to imitate the skin tone of an ethnic or racial group, such as Hispanic, South Asian, or Middle Eastern”. In this case, they were imitating the skin tone of many Pacific Islanders. In addition, the markings on the costume were similar and meant to imitate tattoos that are traditional to Pacific cultures. As a company, Disney failed to respect the significance behind Maui, an important figure in Polynesian oral traditions and Pacific Islander ancestry.

Why is it bad?

People tend to choose costumes because of their novelty and peculiarity. But dressing up as a cultural stereotype is hurtful. Appropriative costumes send the message that someone’s culture is not “normal” and a thing to be made fun of or mocked. It reduces their beliefs and culture down to a costume. This is highly offensive—it ignores the history of a group of people and their culture, and dismisses the discrimination that the marginalized face in regards to their culture. A costume can be taken off, but one’s culture cannot.

How can you avoid it?

1. Are you altering your skin tone for a costume?

If your costume involves changing your skin color, scrap it. Brown/Blackface is never okay. If you want to dress up as Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin, you can still wear her iconic turquoise crop and harem pants! Just skip out on the excessive self-tanner or way-too-dark makeup. 

2. Have you researched your costume?

Make sure to research the history behind your costume. You don’t want to unknowingly steal a sacred part of someone else’s culture or religion. For example, Indigenous headdresses are historically sacred symbols and should never be worn as a costume accessory. This goes for hair as well. Co-opting dreadlocks, box braids, or an afro isn’t a simple change in hairstyle, it’s appropriation. Let’s keep our costumes respectful.

3. Does your costume normalize the marginalization of a group of people?

If your costume depicts someone imprisoned, homeless, disabled or mentally ill, choose a different costume. Making fun of someone else’s suffering is insensitive. If you suspect your costume contributes to the oppression of a group of people, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

4. Are you holding your friends accountable?

Now that you know how to avoid cultural appropriation, you can help your friends avoid it too. Start a conversation to educate them so they can understand what’s wrong with their costume, as opposed to accusing them firsthand.

To learn more about cultural appropriation, I’d definitely recommend checking out this article!

Halloween is a holiday that you can enjoy without involving cultural appropriation. If you have any doubts about your costume, it might be a good idea to go with your backup plan or put together a new costume altogether. Her Campus has several DIY costumes you can pull from to keep your Halloween frightful yet respectful.

Tag us in your BOO-tiful Halloween costume pics on Instagram @HerCampusSJSU!