It’s Time We Have A Real Talk About Culture-Based Halloween Costumes

Halloween is the most wonderfully pagan of all the pagan holidays. It’s a night to let loose and live out your wildest (hopefully legal) fantasies. Also, it’s a chance to play dress up and who doesn’t like that? But while the costume options afforded to you are limitless, the reality is that picking what to wear requires some careful consideration. It demands sensitivity.

Oh, don’t race to the comment section just yet, let’s talk this through. This month, Spirit Halloween Costumes was picketed over the store’s insistence on selling costumes based on Native American stereotypes. In September, Disney pulled costumes tied to their upcoming film, Moana, after activists pointed out that the get-up — which features both simulated brown skin and tribal tattoos — had commodified the cultural heritage of Pacific Islanders. In both cases, opponents of the protests came out in droves to declare that anyone offended by a costume is a fascist Social Justice Warrior.

This position has mainstream adherents too. Stephen Fry and Salman Rushdie have made strong statements about the modern propensity to take offense. Meanwhile, an email sent to students last year at Yale about considerate costumes, led to a counter-point email by a professor, which spiraled into protests and, eventually, faculty resignations. These stories reveal both the sticky intellectual issues and the endless shades of gray that Halloween brings up. As professor Erika Christakis wrote in her email to Yale students, “As a former preschool teacher, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably ‘appropriative’ about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day.”

But even if you agree with Christakis’s mindset, there has to be a tipping point. It’s hard to make the case that all conversation about cultural appropriation is just liberal PC drivel. It’s hard to imagine that Rushdie or Fry would defend someone’s right to show up to a party in blackface. And is it really such a mystery of our unendingly complicated universe to fathom why Native Americans wouldn’t be thrilled about “Sexy Squaw” costumes?

The first thing that must be understood when talking about this complicated issue is that cultural appropriation on Halloween is not implicitly born of malice. Mostly, it’s just people wanting to have fun. Yes, there are people who inherently disagree with any costume censorship (and like to touch raw nerves to show dissent), but there are also people who just don’t realize that dressing as a negative racial or cultural stereotype (including “white trash” or rednecks) might prove upsetting.

Take blackface, for instance. Despite the fact that it feels like we should all know that putting on blackface is 100% wrong by now — due to the many articles devoted to the history and context of the practice, as well as high-profile celebrity cases that reveal this “hapless racism” — it’s still happening. And while some instances are absolutely rooted in aggression, others involve people who may have never fully considered why the practice is offensive in the first place.

“I don’t necessarily think that everybody knows that brownface and blackface are actually problematic,” says Dr. Neal Lester, an English professor at Arizona State University, whose award-winning Project Humanities initiative recently hosted its third annual symposium on the subject of cultural appropriation.

That lack of knowledge, Lester says, is what makes it hard to go in-depth on the idea of appropriative costumes. At ASU, Lester tells us, there have been at least two headline grabbing incidents of blackface in the past five years, including a highly-publicized “Martin Luther King Black Party” during which members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity threw gang signs, drank from watermelons, and captioned their photos with the hashtag #ihaveadream (the frat was later kicked off campus). Students also dressed in blackface as part of at least two “blackout” games under the guise of school spirit. Recently, teenagers have openly posted photos and videos of themselves in blackface (veiled as facial masks, but c’mon), captioning their images #BlackLivesMatter.

Even if you’re the biggest devil’s advocate on earth, it’s relatively hard to deny that these issues aren’t issues at all. And while some cases make it seem like we’re collectively able to drill down to the more nuanced examples of cultural appropriation, the crudest forms of costumed insensitivity are still kicking around. The fact that Halloween is, by its very nature, meant to be fun and rule-free makes the whole conversation even more thorny, and makes a certain segment of society even more resistant to having it.

“When you go into a Halloween party store you can dress up like a sexy Pocahontas or you can buy a Bob Marley wig,” Lester states, “and people don’t know the history. Not long after the movie was out a few years ago, one major department store displayed a slave costume to sell DVDs. We’ve got a costume of 12 Years a Slave and people want to buy that. Cultural appropriation is taking and reducing a particular culture, even if you do think you appreciate it, to something that’s entertainment or mockery or ‘cool’ or something to be worn as a fashion.”

Lester uses dreadlocks as a particularly salient example of how a minority group can be mocked through Halloween props. “The issue is — why is it being done?” he says. “If, for example, there are folks who are not being hired for jobs or people who are being fired from their jobs because of dreadlocks, cornrows or other more Afrocentric hairstyles, then you have to look at why you feel like that is something you need to appropriate.”

As Lester points out, wearing dreadlocks on Halloween, particularly when the hairstyle has been recently embattled, is a way of enacting privilege without even realizing it. People of color who wear the same hairstyles every day, Lester says, don’t live their lives without social and professional consequences. That mentality extends to other costumes too. If you’re wearing a costume that is free of consequences for you, but has a history of suffering to members of the culture you’re emulating, it may not be a great idea.

But what if your costume, whatever it may be, is aimed at appreciating the culture that you are borrowing from? Lester says that there’s a fine line. While it’s absolutely fine to appreciate other people’s cultural and ethnic heritage, you can do that without co-opting important symbols of the groups you so admire (see: Katy Perry, Selena Gomez).

“You can appreciate another’s culture without trying to be it or imitate it,” Lester says. “Whenever you see someone’s culture and you decide you want to perform it, that’s when it becomes a problem. That has nothing to do with whether you appreciate it.”

This issue, for Lester and many others, is that costumes often reinforce existing systems of power without understanding or acknowledging their context or history. Still, getting everyone to agree on what is and isn’t offensive grows exponentially more complicated the more granular you get. Most people don’t go into a store, pick up a “Women’s Kimono Costume Red” and consider that a Japanese woman might feel like her culture is being commodified or fetishized. Unfortunately, good intentions are invisible and a raging Halloween party isn’t the ideal venue for discussion.

“I’m a Judge Judy fan,” Lester says. “I don’t know what your intentions are, but what we do know is that even if you didn’t intend to run the red light and hit somebody and kill them, the result is the same. Someone has been hit by a car and may be dead.”

That might seem harsh, but Lester is using hyperbole to explain how “I had the best intentions” isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Even though no one will die if you come to a party dressed as Ray and Janay Rice (replete with painted faces), and while your intentions may have been topical rather than racially problematic, you’ve made an active choice to mock some pretty huge segments of society for the sake of a joke. Is the payoff worth it?

“Sometimes we don’t know our own unconscious biases,” Lester says. “What is true is that if someone says it’s problematic, one needs to self-reflect and try to understand why. When someone creates a piece of art, that person doesn’t know how it’s going to be received, and you may or may not be conscious of what you have created based on the interpretation of the person who’s receiving it.”

Basically: Your costume doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The way it’s perceived deserves to be discussed. Sure, may feel easy or convenient (especially if you’re embarrassed) to brush that impact off as SJW nonsense, but it’s important to recognize that most people aren’t just offended to be offended. Usually, being offended by a costume is about feeling hurt or demeaned, particularly in a country where racial, sexual, and gender equity are hot-button issues.

“Critical conversation about cultural appropriation, for me, is not about policing other people,” Lester says. “It’s about policing one’s own actions and reexamining one’s own intentions and motivations. In the case of costumes, it’s about thinking outside the box of another’s cultural identity.”

How can you do that? Be thoughtful. Consider whether you’re coming from a position of privilege (we’re talking systematic privilege that reinforces stereotypes and not your own personal background here) and make that part of your decision, because while Halloween is all about fun and games, power dynamics are also at play.

As Professor Susan Scafidi of Fordham University told Refinery 29 in 2015, “Halloween as a holiday has a history of being focused on inversion of power. It’s about turning the daily world on its head.” But if you’re already in a position of power societally — even if it’s not by choice, even if you personally haven’t subjugated or marginalized anyone — then you’re not inverting that power structure by dressing up as a member of cultures that have historically been oppressed or subjugated.

That’s just “reinforcing current power structures in an offensive way,” according to Scafidi.

From Refinery 29:

“You can be whoever you want for a day, but with what ramifications?” says Dr. [Anna] Akbari. “Who suffers at the hand of your public display of dress-up?” Can you imagine being Mexican, hearing Donald Trump call all Mexicans rapists, and then seeing guys partying in sombreros on Halloween? Or being a Muslim and unable to get on a plane without being pulled out of the security line, and seeing someone dressed up as a terrorist? And then, you can’t even say anything without being dismissed as overly sensitive.

Here’s what makes the subject of cultural appropriation even more difficult on Halloween, though: There’s no clear line, no online test, no hotline you might call to ask, “Here’s what I’m wearing, is it honoring or appropriating another culture?”And even if such a thing existed, you’d be met with a variety of responses. After all, it’s true that not all people will be offended by cultural appropriation. By the same token, not all people who are offended can be written off as being “overly sensitive.”

This may not be enough to sway you. Despite the evidence, including the fact that cultural appropriation has been shown to increase negative bias towards minority groups, you may not be ready to follow the advice of some website when it comes to your Halloween festivities. That’s fair — we don’t know your life — but here’s a thought: If you do choose to wear a costume that’s culturally appropriative, can you also be open to having a conversation and not just dismissing others when they come to you with their concerns? That seems fair, right?

If you’re going to go out on Halloween as “Drunk Mexican” you owe it to the people who have been hurt by your costume to at least listen to their concerns. Otherwise, by completely ignoring the voices of the group you’ve been perceived as appropriating, you’re just making it more clear how unbalanced the power dynamics are. And nothing is less fun on a night of partying than being around a closed-minded know-it-all.