The Horrors of Cultural Appropriation on Halloween

Halloween. It’s legit my favorite holiday of the year. No forced family time, no religious pretense — just ghoulish, mysterious fun. And costumes. So many costumes. Is there any other time of the year that we get to forget ourselves for a night and be anyone or anyTHING we can possibly imagine? It’s a time for our creativity to take center stage, to dig around thrift shops finding the perfect costume, and to revel in getting out of our heads and into a different character — even if just for a night. That is, of course, as long as we steer clear of cultural appropriation. 

Cultural appropriation is nothing new in America. Think Elvis Presley, any of the Kardashians, even Eddie Murphy’s hit film Coming to America, which mocked the culture of the fictitious African nation Zamunda and immigrant culture. A lot of things don’t age well in our era of perpetual societal growth and awareness, and cultural appropriation is definitely on that list. Some people see this growth as political correctness gone too far. But, the reality of our world is that white supremacy is waning and finally — finally — dressing up like Pocahontas is understood to be hurtful and inappropriate. Still, there are way too many people continuing to appropriate culture in incredibly harmful ways. 

Consider blackface. Beginning in early 19th century America, deeply racist but wildly popular minstrel shows toured the country and incorporated the painting of white faces with black makeup and hyper-accentuated lips. Eventually, in the 1840s black minstrel shows also began touring and were deemed “authentic” because black people wore the makeup as well. Blackface will never be separated from these dehumanizing and oppressive origins. There’s no case where it is okay to wear. Ever. Just don’t do it.

The reason all of these costumes that people wear “for fun” are offensive is because they’re rooted in America’s super racist culture and history. Pick any non-white male cultural group and consider a time in our history where they’ve been demonized, enslaved, slaughtered, raped, or otherwise demeaned. Now, considering how detrimental and abusive that history is — do you feel right in perpetuating it? 

Cultural appropriation is painful and wrong because it’s rooted in white male supremacy, and any means of “playing” a stereotype finds its foundation in bigotry.

When considering a costume, “OMG, I’m so excited — I’m going as Crazy Eyes from Orange Is the New Black” maybe isn’t the best place to start. But Julianne Hough, a Dancing with the Stars judge and champion, did just that in 2013. Not only did she wear blackface, but her decision to portray an incarcerated black woman for Halloween was callous and reeked of white privilege. Privilege is when you can dress up like a mentally-ill woman of color who is incarcerated, and then take that jumpsuit off whenever you want and go back to your normal life. Thousands of people live that life every single day and it’s not fun or funny — it’s sad and a terrible symptom of an unjust and inequitable society. Participating in this kind of calloused cultural appropriation hurts everyone involved, including you. Dressing up as anyone who has been dehumanized by the broader culture is off-limits — unless it’s Trump. He and his cronies have dehumanized enough people to be mocked for eternity. 

Ignorance can only be claimed by people who have yet to learn the importance of these issues. When I was nine and dressed up like a shrunken head warrior, I was ignorant. I own that. I would never do that again knowing what I know now. We all evolve throughout our lives. With the advent of the Internet and social media, we’re learning at a faster rate than ever before. But ignorance is still a spectrum. A nine-year-old in the 90s might get more of a pass than Justin Trudeau, who in 2001 wore brownface at an Arabian Nights party. He knew better, or if he didn’t, he definitely should’ve known better — he was 30 years old at the time. It was also 20 years ago, and, as we know, racism, unlike a fine wine, doesn’t age well. 

So what is one to wear this year? Maybe it’s time we get back to the creativity of our youth and stop giving $3.6 billion a year to the fast fashion of Halloween costumers that only perpetuate mindless consumption, cultural appropriation, and the patriarchal objectification of women anyway. 

Sexy _____ costumes are so boring and uncreative. Doing something fabulous and appropriate just takes a little bit more time than we’re accustomed to spending on our costumes.

Think about it on your commute, make a list of things you want to learn more about, and use that as an impetus for a rad, unique costume or character that you want to develop. Everyone has fascinating cultural histories. Dig deep, consider yours, and use them as inspiration. Maybe modernize them or add a caveat. Last year I went as Lady Liberty, but with a black eye. We all know she’s been fighting harder than usual the last few years and has taken a serious hit or two lately. Or go for something scary that doesn’t connect to a specific racial or cultural group — like dressing up as President Trump during his second inauguration — one of the scariest things I can imagine.

You can also hit up a thrift shop and find something interesting that sparks a great idea and go from there. It’s an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint while supporting organizations like Goodwill that put your money back into the community. Showing up in something from Spirit Halloween or one of the other pop-up Halloween shops likely supports manufacturers that use sweatshop labor. Which, if we’re talking about appropriation, then we should also recognize the exploitation of garment workers in the fast fashion industry. Also, everything on the rack there is some sort of basic garbage: Sexy Pirates, Sexy Witches, Cleopatra (no!), Sexy Swat Team, Sexy Nurse times five, Sexy Little Red Riding Hood. If you’ve just got to do a sexy costume, find a turtle mask, slut-ify a men’s suit, and when people ask what you are, you can confidently say, “Sexy Mitch McConnell,” which will terrify even the most avid Halloween fan.

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.

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