Cultural appropriation is the scariest costume

Commentary by MakDarrow

When it comes to choosing a Halloween costume there are many different options and genres. Yet many continue to appropriate cultures, devalue societal issues and disregard past trauma as well. It is important to note the difference between appreciation versus appropriation to create and contribute to a more welcoming and inclusive society.

Dressing as Princess Tiana, Moana, and Black Panther are all commonly debated costumes when discussing the disparities amidst appropriation and appreciation due to their racial backgrounds and rich culture. Miss Devin Owens, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion, defines appropriation as “taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.” One of the most common cases of appropriation is changing one’s skin color or racial appearance. Most commonly used practices of this racist act are brownface and blackface. First used by white performers to mock people of color (POC) on minstrel shows, the act of painting one’s face to depict a different race was an issue when it was first used 200 years ago and still is now. Not only does blackface dehumanize and characterize POC, but by using it one is reinforcing its degrading and long standing racist legacy. 

Further examples of appropriation are copying cultural tattoos or markings, and wearing culturally significant clothing or accessories without understanding the meaning or significance in that culture. In contrast, “appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally,” Owens said. Appreciation can also be interacting with active members in said culture to achieve a better insight. While the difference among appreciation and appropriation has a small gray area, it is crucial to recognizing why certain “costumes” are wrong.

So, what are these “costumes’’ that are frequently being abused for the benefit of others? As previously stated, dressing as any racial or cultural group such as Egyptian, any Indigenous tribe, African, Indian, Mexican, Hispanic, Asian and so on, not only makes a character of human beings but also devalues their history and cultural significance. “Many costumes that fall under the appropriation category depict cultures as a monolith — erasing the diversity and vibrancy of individuals who belong to that particular culture. It can also uphold harmful stereotypes or biases that people may have about the respective culture,” Owens said.

Illustration by Mak Darrow. (Artist statement for contest purposes: Mak created this illustration with the PicsArt app on her iPad. She then made it grayscale in photoshop for the printed page and used the color version for the web edition.)

For example, the “sexy native” costume. Consisting of feathers, small portions of clothing that depict animal hide, and tribal beading, this costume can be found at nearly every Halloween store. This costume makes a joke out of the long history of sexual abuse against Native Americans in the U.S., while ignoring the fact that Indigenous women and girls are still among the most vulnerable members of society. This issue not only lies with “sexy native costumes” but all costumes that claim to portray Native Americans. It is wrong, whether it’s culturally significant headdresses, facial paint, braids, leather skirts, or whatever else.

Another commonly abused costume are those surrounding Dia de los Muertos, a holiday celebrated mostly across Latin America to celebrate life and death, and costumes based on exaggerated versions of Mexican stereotypes. Ponchos, maracas, fake mustaches, and sombreros are not an appropriate depiction of the Mexican community. “What you’re wearing has meaning to it and our culture isn’t a costume. Being Mexican isn’t a costume,” senior Alyson Tule Martinez said. Enforcing racial pigeonholes, unfairly thinking of or describing someone or something as belonging to a particular group, is offensive. “Cultures come with a huge history and background and it took a lot for Hispanics/Latinos to get where they are now,” Tule Martinez said.  It is for this reason that it is also inappropriate to dress in a costume that depicts stereotyped Egyptian persons, geishas, and “bollywood” with Bindi costumes that attempt to represent Hindu culture and women. A final representation of cultural appropriation in costumes, is the “hula dancer” costume. This costume that mimics Polynesian performers, omits the value of their culture and overlooks that it was once illegal for the Polynesian community to practice anything associated with their culture. 

Not every costume that is inappropriate is deemed so due to its cultural significance. For instance, dressing as any depiction of a mental institution patient is highly insensitive. With nearly 1 in 5 American adults having a mental illness, this “costume” pushes false agendas about those with mental illnesses. It not only dehumanizes them but also disregards the struggles that are faced daily — much like “hobo” costumes that aim to depict unhoused people. 

Another costume that is a definite no go, is a “fat suit.” “Fat suits” invalidate plus size individuals for their image and turn their appearance into a joke. The topic of others’ weight is a subject used in comedy all too often and by “dressing up” as plus size individuals one further pushes these shaming tactics. 

This Halloween, like any other, it is important to really think about costumes before choosing to dress up. 

While Halloween is full of spooks and scares, it is ignorance that is truly the most horrifying.

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