Halloween is a time of year when creativity abounds, especially when it comes to Halloween costumes. Whether it’s the perfect trick-or-treat outfit for our little ones or an elaborate design for ourselves, it’s important to ask the question: “Is my costume culturally appropriate? Or does it have the potential to be offensive?”
While cultural appropriation has a long history in America, it’s gained a wider understanding in recent years as our society has become increasingly more aware of how our actions and attitudes toward racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity impact those around us. This is particularly true during Halloween when our costume(s) have the potential to hurt, disrespect, and offend members of the culture represented by the costume even when that’s not our intent. So how should we approach this festive holiday in a respectful and honoring way?
What is Cultural Appropriation?
First, we have to understand how our costume might be offensive to someone else. Cultural appropriation occurs when someone assumes the attire, hair, music, imagery, or other specific representation from a culture that is not their own in a dishonoring way, which can be especially hurtful when there is a history of oppression within the culture. An example would be wearing traditional Native American clothes and headdresses without being Native American yourself or tied to their culture in a unique way.
Is it even possible to dress as another culture without it being cultural appropriation? Yes! The most significant difference between the two is that cultural appreciation implies the individual has knowledge and understanding of the culture they are representing, including its beauty, uniqueness, and contributions. They understand the history of marginalization and oppression experienced by the people within the culture and are intentional to not perpetuate further disrespect or stereotypes.
They also have a reverence for items that culture holds as sacred. For example, in Hindi culture, the bindi (dot worn on the forehead of married women) has deep religious, traditional, and cultural significance and shouldn’t be worn flippantly.
Is My Halloween Costume Offensive? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself
Knowledge is a great place to begin, but it’s not enough. We have to check our motives and ask the right questions to know if our costume will be honoring or hurtful.
1. Does my costume make fun of or disrespect the culture?
2. Am I furthering a hurtful stereotype?
3. Do I need to use makeup to adjust my skin tone?
4. Am I using a sacred symbol from the culture?
5. Does my costume perpetuate the history of marginalization and oppression experienced
by the culture?
It’s also a good idea to ask someone within the culture for their feedback on your costume choice. Their perspective can provide valuable insight to help you avoid unintentional missteps. If you’re unsure of your answer to any of these questions, it’s probably a good idea to choose another costume until you’ve gained a better understanding of the culture.
How Will Others Know My Costume is Honoring?
The way you carry yourself is also very important. Out of the heart the mouth speaks. The same holds true for nonverbal communication. The love and appreciation you have for the culture you’re representing will shine through.
However, in a culture where people are quick to assume and error on the side of offense, you might encounter questions and comments. The best thing you can do is be prepared. Don’t allow the possibility that others might not understand your costume choice hold you back. Embrace it as a teachable moment. Kindly explain why you chose your costume and your love for the culture it represents. Explain that this is a way for you to honor the culture that is important to you.
Finally, know when to walk away. Not everyone will understand. That’s okay. Don’t spend your time defending or striving to convince those who aren’t open to hearing you out. Only you truly know your “why”—your motives, the work you’ve done, the knowledge you’ve gained. If you’re open to a conversation and they only want to debate, it’s time to make like a ghost a disappear.
Celebrating Culture is Possible!
Celebrating another culture is a beautiful, bridge-building act. When done in collaboration with people within the culture, it can open the door to conversations that lead to greater understanding, compassion, and empathy. When people compliment you, your friend group, or your little one on your costume(s), you can offer additional insight into your choice and what you learned as you creatively chose your costume this year.
Don’t miss this fun holiday “would you rather” from members of the Grit and Grace Life team!