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Is It That Deep?: Learning About Cultural Appropriation in Halloween Costumes


Tue, October 31

“It's not that deep,” is something we hear often about cultural appropriation, which is a term defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society,” according to Oxford Languages. Halloween costumes tend to be a target, as cultures are mocked and belittled out of excuse for a silly joke. The real question in regards to cultural appropriation, though, is how deep does it go?

Image Credit: Matheus Viana from Pexels

The Context

In "cultural appropriation" by Emily Kendall on Britannica, Kendall states that the term cultural appropriation stems from the 1970s as a response to Western colonialism. The concept has existed for decades and seems to have planted itself as a massive part of Western culture, some recognizable examples include Native American symbolism and mascots in sports, dream catchers, the recent debate of the implication behind non-black people wearing dreadlocks-- even the swastika, which was once a Buddhist symbol of harmony.

The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being." The motif (a hooked cross) appears to have first been used in Eurasia, as early as 7000 years ago, perhaps representing the movement of the sun through the sky. To this day, it is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism. It is a common sight on temples or houses in India or Indonesia. Swastikas also have an ancient history in Europe, appearing on artifacts from pre-Christian European cultures.

– The United States Holocaust Museum

Image Credit: Josh Hild from Pexels

The Conversation

So, how does all of this tie into Halloween, such a spooky time full of treats and joy? Well, many take advantage of the holiday as a time to use offensive costumes for a cruel mockery of other minority cultures, often just to get a laugh. Examples include “Mexican” costumes, often displaying the wearer in a sombrero and poncho, “Hawaiian” costumes which include ‘pa’u's (grass skirts), coconut shell bras, etc. and costumes including kimonos, Indigenous headdresses, and other culturally significant pieces.

Several celebrities have been put under fire for their culturally insensitive costumes. Luann De Lesseps as Diana Ross, for example, appeared with a tall afro and a dark tan, therefore being accused of blackface, which resulted in her sending out an apology for her actions. Colton Hayes committed cultural appropriation twice two years in a row as Kanye West and Gandhi, as well as Shaun White who dressed up as a disabled character from Tropic Thunder. Possibly the worst, Chris Brown decided to costume as a “terrorist,” wearing a turban and drawing on a fake beard.

The Consequence

Many celebrities have had to send out mass apologies and face backlash for their choices, losing their platform and subsequently losing devoted fans as a result. But, what about common people committing cultural appropriation? They may lose a few friends or have a distasteful reputation, but the main problem lies in how cultural appropriation affects the minorities targeted. It reinforces power and colonialism, in which it allows for cultures to continuously have things stolen from them; especially cultures that barely have much of their practices left. As an example, Black Americans have box braids and dreadlocks appropriated, when our culture has only existed since the 16th century. We don't have much, but what we do have is often taken by those whose ancestors stole from us many years ago in the first place. We lose our understanding and significance of the culture, and over time, the meaning in itself is lost. How many people who wear Indigenous headdresses can tell us what they represent? How many non-black people in cornrows can explain how important they are to us? How many in kimonos know what cultural contexts they should be worn in?

The Change

Some steps you can take to prevent the effects of cultural appropriation include educating yourself on cultures, talking to and informing others who have done or are planning to do cultural appropriation of what it is and why it's not okay, and overall just being aware of what is and isn't a great idea when it comes to cultural sensitivity. Have a happy Halloween, and remember: it is that deep.

Image Credit: Yaroslav Shuraev from Pexels

Khalil Daniels

Writer since Oct, 2023 · 2 published articles

Khalil is a sixteen year old sophomore at a Southwest Houston high school. Published once before, this queer BIPOC journalist aspires to spread a message of hope to those around him. Khalil enjoys nature, poetry, literature, and baking in his free time; but most of all, he loves journalism.