This is an adaptation of articles by Stephanie Dawson Pack, Alexis Baker and Amerique Phillips previously published in @theU. U Associate Director Shawn Bryce of the Community Outreach program also provided information used in this story.
It’s that time of year when much of the Western world agrees to suspend their disbelief for a moment and try on another identity. People buy and wear costumes that help them become something else, even if only for the evening. For some, it’s a time of excitement in imagining a new reality.
And for some others, it’s painful. Costumes that take the form of caricature and adopt aspects of someone’s cultural identity can be belittling. Insensitive. Obtuse. It’s a form of cultural appropriation.
This Q&A, based on an interview with Irene Ota, retired diversity coordinator for the College of Social Work, helps explain what cultural appropriation is and suggests ways to be respectful as you celebrate Halloween.
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation happens when you take something from a different culture and use it in an unintended way or for financial gain. An example: Claiming to be Buddhist—ignoring that Buddhism is a complex, religious tradition grounded in thousands of years of history—because you meditate.
What is cultural co-optation?
Cultural co-optation is the act or process of using something from another culture in a way that is motivated by what is pleasing to you without considering the cultural significance, historical context and power differentials that are a part of the item or situation. An example might be wearing a Native American headdress because it looks cool. In the American Indian Nations that wear headdresses, they are only worn by those who have earned the privilege to wear them because of how these individuals uphold and embody specific cultural values. Donning a headdress is not a casual performance. It’s a complex communal, religious and political act.
What is important to consider when choosing a costume?
It is important to consider the colonial and oppressive history that may be associated with certain costumes. The reality of lived oppression and injustice matter in cultural representations. Do your research. Understand the historical context of what you’re doing. Question whether you’re co-opting or appropriating something that isn’t yours. Check your privilege. Some things to consider when choosing how to engage with another cultural act or artifact:
- What is my position of power in this situation? Am I part of a colonizing or colonized group?
- Does this costume perpetuate stereotypes, particularly racial stereotypes? Does it center on a primitive image of a group of people? Is it based on deficit assumptions?
- Does the costume include race-related hair or accessories (dreads/locs, afros, cornrows, a headdress)?
- What’s the historical context of this costume? Is there a history here that influences the way others around me might respond to what I’m wearing?
- Does this costume represent a culture that is not my own?
- Is this something I would choose on an average day? Are there negative aspects to the way of life this costume represents that I wouldn’t want to live with every day?
Examples of Halloween costumes that should be avoided because they are offensive and reinforce stereotypes:
- Native American: This is one of the most discriminatory Halloween costumes. Any costume depicting an entire ethnic group is offensive.
- A “señorita:” This costume perpetuates stereotypes against women and the Latinx culture.
- Gypsy: The name “Gypsy” is a racial slur given to the Romani people in Europe. This group of people was persecuted because they were a minority.
- Middle Eastern cultures: Costumes depicting Middle Eastern people as terrorists narrow down a vast group of people into a single stereotype.
- Anything with a Black face: Most of the scrips that involved a White person wearing a Black face create an exaggerated racist stereotype of Black people.
- A costume that suggests a person’s disability: Anything that mocks a person’s health condition, such as the use of a wheelchair, causes harm and, in some cases, increase the stigma related to that condition.
If you plan to celebrate Halloween this year, we encourage you to follow health guidelines designed to limit the spread of coronavirus: Gather only in small groups, wear a face covering and maintain a physical distance of 6 feet. Please be aware of your surroundings and stay safe!