Culture: it’s more than looks
Part of Halloween is dressing up in different costumes, new makeup, and different hairstyles. However, different cultures are turned into a fancy dress costume for the sake of someone else’s entertainment. Some might argue that it’s just cultural appreciation, that wearing that fancy dress costume is a form of flattery. However, cultural appreciation is about understanding that you can’t just take aesthetic properties from a culture. It’s not always about the look of the costume or style, it can also be about the cultural relevance. Sometimes a style is ridiculed when worn by someone who is a part of the culture, only to be praised as being part of fashion, or part of a fantastic Halloween costume. It disrespects the culture. People wear them without knowing the meaning behind it, how people within the culture wear it, or what they do to earn it.
People of different ethnicities interact daily and it’s not surprising that cultural traditions are transferred between different groups. However, cultural appropriation is an entirely different thing to picking up the customs and dialects of another culture through interaction. I would argue that cultural appropriation is a deliberate choice. It’s damaging as it typically involves using the culture as a costume, without trying to understand the history, experience or traditions of said culture. Native American headdresses are worn for important ceremonies, and are earned. They are certainly not worn because they ‘look cool’.
Whilst many cultures welcome those who wish to learn more about them, appropriating it is an entirely different thing. If someone tells you that you’re appropriating their culture, then it might be worth it to at least listen to them.
Fun, with limits
Once, Halloween was met with gravitas. It was an occasion meant to ward off evil spirits.
Today, Halloween has evolved into a curious mix of entertainment and a plain old excuse to binge-drink the night away. Halloween costumes have become more creative through the years, from ghosts composed of white bedsheets, to Marilyn Monroe-wannabes and Tinkerbell look-alikes.
People now experiment with dressing up as a character from different racial or cultural backgrounds from their own.
Some would consider this offensive. However, we have to pay attention to the context in which this operates. To me, it is not a way of mocking or targeting any minority racial or cultural group, and especially during a festive occasion like Halloween.
Rather, I see it as a form of building up an awareness of cultures and races. It opens up narrow minds. It fosters an awareness surrounding the different cultures we live and work with, and reminds of the cultures we have no contact with. It closes the disparity of ignorance.
Yet, danger arises when cultural costumes are modified in a provocative fashion – whether it is shortening the skirt to a sexually suggestive length or making unnecessary rips in the garments. Not only does it disrespect the culture, it belittles and scorns the people who belong to that cultural or racial group.
Revellers should also don the attire with some appreciation. Unless the dude at the next table is boisterously degrading a race while wearing their ethnic costume, don’t embarrass him by asking him to strip down to his birthday suit.
Take a step back
In a new age of identity politics where political correctness is a must, the obvious answer is a no to donning costumes traditionally belonging to another culture on Halloween.
Outfits adorning the likes of a ‘mysterious Princess Jasmine’, ‘the sexy native American’ or a ‘travelling gypsy’ are completely culturally insensitive.
However, it’s counterproductive to stamp the mark of ‘cultural appropriation’ on every single person dressed up as a hula girl this Halloween. The act of ‘calling out’ cultural appropriation is bordering on cultural segregation. At which point in time did we stop celebrating cultural diversity and start fear-mongering people into not enjoying other cultures?
Who dictates the rules of cultural offense? By the logic of cultural appropriation, we are somehow all guilty as someone, somewhere in this world is bound to be offended by your Halloween get-up.
While the line between cultural exchange and appropriation may seem blur to most people, I find it very clear.
There is a difference between adopting features from other cultures and making them part of your identity because you think it’s ‘kawaii’, and wearing a geisha outfit on Halloween for one night only.
When localised cultures become so heavily ingrained into popular culture, then it is not a matter of ‘borrowing cultures’ but a way of expressing and communicating a shared culture that we all understand.
We have to be smart enough to be able to distinguish these differences instead of uncontrollably shouting ‘MINE’ like the seagulls from Finding Nemo at every Pocahontas this Halloween.
Kanye West, for example, is a global and cultural icon that transcends cultural boundaries – it is acceptable to be Kanye West for Halloween. But, if you dress up as Kanye West with blackface – that is racist.
In similar respects, don’t be an idiot and make a costume out of anything religious, political or stereotypical if it perpetuates harmful negative stereotypes. That’s plain wrong.
The issue lies not in culturally appropriated outfits; people are merely fixated on Halloween as a mask for what lies underneath which is a world in which racism exists and persists.
Censoring Halloween costumes, however, is not the end to cultural insensitivity.
Have fun, don’t appropriate
Every October, the debate about culturally appropriative Halloween costumes rears its head once more.
Despite clear, comprehensive columns in many magazines and newspapers on why, say, Día De Los Muertos is not just a festival and why white girls should steer clear of sugar skull makeup – there’ll inevitably be parades of racist costumes at local clubs later this month.
What about dressing as a specific character though? It’s not as blatant an act of privilege as purchasing a sexy Native American costume, which contributes to the alarming rates of sexual violence toward indigenous women in the United States. It perpetuates the myth that “All The Real Indians died off”. Put simply, lazy ‘exotic’ costumes are harmful. But dressing as a character of a different race can be dangerous too.
In 2016, hopefully there’s no need to warn against blackface although celebrities like Robert Downey Jr – along with a horrifying 52% of respondents to one survey – believe it’s just fine. If you genuinely don’t know why blackface is a bad idea, Google it. Really, Google is your friend here.
Furthermore, wearing yellowface or dreads, bindis, ‘tribal’ tattoos, as part of your Halloween costume isn’t only dreadfully misguided, it’s culturally appropriation.
If people know who your character is, your skin tone doesn’t have to match theirs, and there are countless costumes – classic, obscure, and geeky – that you can embrace enthusiastically without having to worry about accusations of racism.
So on Halloween, have a fun night, watch something spooky before pre-drinks (I recommend The Witch), and don’t shrug off the ugly implications of imitating other cultures and races.
Last modified: 23rd March 2017