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.