Halloween is not an excuse to be racist

A drawing of six characters in different costumes with question marks in the  background.
(Lyndzi Ramos | Daily Trojan)

As 2021’s spooky season approaches, so does the opportunity to dress up, show out and be whatever you want to be for one night.

However, this nationally adored day is plagued with covert racism. It is overwhelmingly clear that the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation blurs over time. Our failure to acknowledge cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes — especially stereotypically popularized costumes — is harmful to various communities and cultures globally, as many aspects of some costumes are delicate and powerful symbols of these heritages. 

Today, people commonly misconstrue the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Cultural appreciation comes with a desire to learn and understand another culture when invited by the other culture. According to Greenheart International, people practice cultural appreciation “in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally,” which usually happens when a marginalized culture invites others into its cultural traditions.

For example, Adele posted a photo of herself at the Notting Hill Carnival, a traditional celebration of Black and Caribbean culture, where she wore Bantu knots in her hair and a Jamaican flag printed on her top. The internet quickly showered her post with claims of cultural appropriation, whereas many Jamaican people saw the post as support for Jamaican culture, claiming: “To all the ignorant non-Jamaicans dragging Adele for supporting the Jamaican culture, sit down! You don’t speak for us!” 

Appreciation doesn’t simply mean learning more about another culture — the distinction also lies within what the in-group has to say. 

Cultural appropriation, however, occurs when someone pinpoints a part of someone else’s culture that may be personally advantageous. They then use it to their personal advantage without creating a bridge or learning about the significance of that particular cultural aspect. 

Moreover, cultural appropriation may occur between any groups of people, including various marginalized groups, or dominant groups stealing from marginalized cultures. Although the latter tends to be excused because of the tangled power dynamics, it is still very common. 

For example, hair bias in the workplace has been an ongoing issue for Black women especially, which prevents them from comfortably securing work opportunities and pressures them to change their hair. However, while Black women face commentary depicting their hair as “unprofessional” and “tacky,” white women who wear these styles from Black culture — cornrows for example — are seen as “trendy and innovative.” 

Cultural appropriation takes the front stage on Halloween in comparison to its appreciative counterpart, and these disrespectful acts deserve exhaustive critique. 

For example, the Indigenous community continually fights against the representation of their people as costumes. Just two years ago, a Halloween store in Phoenix, Ariz., sold “Sexy Native American” costumes — a disgusting and dehumanizing label to plaster onto a group of women and a definitive case of appropriating someone else’s culture for profit.

Additionally, every Halloween sees a disturbing number of “Terrorist Costumes” decked in a thobe and keffiyeh, or “Mexican Costumes” decorated in fake mustaches and sombreros. People go as far as to paint their faces in different tones, such as “Black Face,” a practice used to mock enslaved Black people nearly 200 years ago. It should go without saying that the act of doing this is a deeply painful thing for any Black person to witness. 

People choose to cherry-pick the most stereotypical extreme of a certain cultural group and exploit it to its comical and entertaining limits. Unfortunately, this behavior rarely manages to appropriately account for any adequate boundaries and simply epitomizes ignorance. 

The issue here is clear: Halloween’s alluring facade hides racism. When people masquerade as a “Sexy Native American,” they strip a group of people’s hundreds of thousands of years of history, torment, identity and culture. However, raising awareness for cultural appropriation during Halloween does not mean that we should subject every costume to immediate scrutiny. The line between appreciation and appropriation still exists. It is also essential to consider the spread of misinformation and Americans’ lack of general knowledge regarding international cultural traditions, values and people. 

This failure to consider potential cultural appropriation does not mean there is no room to grow. The purpose of this piece, and any open dialogue regarding cultural appropriation, is to open room for clear lines of communication. Unsure of the meaning of a certain piece of jewelry? Style of hair? Educate yourself and conduct a Google search. It is not others’ responsibility to educate you: learn, grow and appreciate. 

While Halloween shopping this year, think twice about your costume. It helps to truly step back to examine its significance and effect on others.