Halloween is a time for embracing frights, haunts, the absurd and the unsettling. For many, the point of the holiday is to have those experiences without the consequences of actual trauma or danger. Celebration by costume has historically been a significant part of the holiday’s fun, but what happens when the costume choices we make veer into territory that is frightening and unsettling for another person or groups of people?
It’s a buzz-phrase you’ve inevitably heard in the past several years, especially during Halloween season. It’s when people in a position of privilege steal from the cultures of disenfranchised groups and then claim that culture as their own for profit or pleasure. It’s called cultural appropriation.
Some of the most recognizable instances of cultural appropriation manifest themselves during Halloween because of the holiday’s tradition of dress up. The convention lends itself to extreme presentations — the most caricatured versions of monsters, creatures, popular figures and unfortunately, ethnic and racial stereotypes. As such, the majority of the discourse surrounding cultural appropriation gets concentrated around this time of the year, but I want to take this opportunity to discuss what Halloween can teach us about cultural appropriation, and how we can use that information to extend our discourse beyond October 31st.
On Halloween, primary perpetrators of cultural appropriation tend to be white people dressing up as non-white celebrities, characters or a homogenized representation of a culture (i.e. Native American headdress or other regalia). Sometimes even going as far as painting on a non-white skin color (i.e. black face, yellow face, etc.). Again, this tends to be the time of year where the most obviously problematic occurrences of cultural appropriation rear their heads. It is easiest to identify and call out the problem when it’s staring you right in the face — grotesque, blatantly offensive hyperbole.
But the truth of the matter is this: on every day of the year, cultural appropriation is an insidious phantom — not only haunting fashion and beauty, but language, music, dance, food and endless other categories of cultural artifact.
It can be so muted to the point of negligence by unaffected, privileged groups. I have found in my discussions with other white folks a tendency for them to scrutinize, “…but are cases of subtle cultural appropriation REALLY that bad? Is it the most important thing to address in the fight against oppression?” My response comes from a stance based in phenomenological theory and the potency of repetitive action. Put simply: if you repeat a behavior over and over again, at some point down the line, it will become so regular a habit that it seems “natural” or “normal.”
When privileged people allow casual, subtle instances of cultural appropriation to go repeatedly unchecked over an extended period of time, it becomes naturalized, and thus more difficult to identify as harmful.
So it is in the interest of the privileged, if our interest is in dismantling structures of oppression, to call out even those instances that seem “insignificant” — because, they are not. Overwhelming structures are built brick by tiny brick, and the more bricks you knock out, the weaker the walls.
This Halloween, I want to encourage my white friends in particular, to do something that may truly scare you: engage perpetrators of cultural appropriation. Then, commit to doing that year round. Confront strangers, your coworkers, your friends and family, and most importantly — yourself. If you suspect that a certain behavior you participate in or witness might be an issue, take matters into your own hands to do some quick research. Identify the problem, and put the work into eradicating it.
The bodily dangers that people of color face in our country are real, and cultural appropriation is a mechanism culpable of reinforcing the systems that propagate those dangers. Halloween teaches us that fear is only fun if the consequences are false — an adrenaline rush without physical harm. Then, let’s apply that lesson when considering why cultural appropriation — at any time — is inexcusable.