Halloween tends to be filled with good-natured tricks and delicious treats. Apart from the delightful traditions, there is a consistent political discourse that crops up on the scariest night of the year. Namely, those who dress in costumes that are recognized as culturally appropriated, such as the Native American, Geisha girl or the seemingly innocent poncho and sombrero combination; all problematic and disrespectful costume choices that are continually sold and worn around the world.
The high frequency of doubts that arise around what defines a culturally appropriating costume is summed to the numerous cases that cross the line between politically correct and incorrect, showing how little awareness has been raised in occidental societies about what culturally appropriating practices are. Why are the examples named above problematic? And how are they inscribed and normalized in western cultures?
To answer these questions, it is crucial to understand what is covered by the concept of cultural appropriation. According to the Oxford Dictionary, an “act of copying or using the customs and traditions of a particular group or culture by somebody from a more dominant group in society” is considered cultural appropriation.
For instance, if some white people showed up at a Halloween party with Afro wigs and tribal-like pants, they would be reproducing a racist scheme that reinforces the broader positions of power and submission the two groups concerned by this practice are located in. In fact, in this specific case, the white people in costume are caricaturing the characteristics of an already targeted and marginalized group in society. In doing so, they are putting themselves in a position of domination over the other group, a racial privilege that is already conferred to them in their everyday life and this, exclusively for their own fun.
Some would argue that “they are just costumes” however, these types of defensive comments seem not to consider the larger meaning of these practices and the harm that they could cause to those who see their own already marginalized identities stereotyped by someone else.
By reproducing a labelled image of a certain social group, the people wearing culturally appropriating costumes are not only making fun of them, but they are also forgetting the long past and present struggles which those specific BIPOC have had to face, often because of their own appearance.
Despite the increasing attention, this topic has gained over the years, the issue remains contentious. A number of celebrities in the last decade at Halloween parties have been wearing Native American costumes, such as Paris Hilton, Chrissy Teigen and Kylie Jenner. It is clear that culturally appropriating practices are still taking place at a mainstream scale certainly contributes to the difficulty in solving the issue and to spreading awareness on this topic. On the contrary, it normalizes disrespectful practices, thereby perpetuating oppressive dynamics and general ignorance on the subject of racial domination. This ignorance is undoubtedly problematic: we cannot dress up without asking ourselves some questions, benefitting peacefully from our obliviousness.
It is necessary to interrogate ourselves about the harm that, in this case, could be caused by our costume; the question “can someone be potentially offended by my outfit?”, might be a starting point during the next and all the following preparations for Halloween. The possibilities are infinite, so let’s get creative or take out of our wardrobes a good old ghost, pumpkin or superhero costume and have some respectful and politically correct fun!
Giulia Laratta – Arts and Lifestyle Writer