Why Cultural Appropriation is Never Appropriate, Including on Halloween


Sara Stewart, Contributor

Halloween just passed, as well as the month of October. October brought spooky decorations, scary movies, copious amounts of candy, and most importantly, costumes. Dressing up is a central part of the holiday for many, but culturally appropriated costumes are continually seen as socially acceptable for Halloween, an offensive and harmful pattern that has faced few repercussions in our society.

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of traditions specific to a cultural group outside of that which one is from, characterized by insensitive and uninformed behaviors. While we regularly see examples of appropriation in the media, such as news outlets uncovering celebrities and politicians who have done it in the past, it goes unnoticed during Halloween because costumes are dismissed as harmless. Culturally stereotypical costumes have been worn since the beginning of the holiday and are still widely sold and worn today. Many of these costumes are based on racist stereotypes and overly-sexualized depictions of significant and sacred aspects of cultures historically oppressed in America. When they are worn, they perpetuate misrepresentation, degradation, and prejudiced ideas about the people that identify with that culture.

Cultural appropriation is a continuation of this racist and oppressive history. It stems from power and dominance, as those appropriating often belong to a culture that is a majority. Therefore, they feel entitled to borrow aspects of other cultures that they like without understanding the cultural context and facing the criticism and discrimination that people from that culture experience for those same practices. The act of adopting another culture for a costume or personal benefit is ultimately one of privilege.

In America, so much of what we categorize as our ‘American’ culture is borrowed or taken from others. So how can we avoid cultural appropriation on Halloween? 

A costume is not a good outlet for communicating respect and admiration for another culture, given that costumes often use seemingly humorous images to portray highly stereotypical, exaggerated depictions of people and groups. There are so many other great, clever costumes to choose from on Halloween that are not offensive or disrespectful to others. If you are unsure about a costume and whether or not it culturally appropriates, ask questions and take the time to research and learn.

If you are interested in embracing parts of another culture (not for a costume), this can be approached consciously and respectfully. Cultural exchange is the mutual sharing of cultural traditions, and rather than taking, one is invited to learn in a setting where both cultures are represented.