By: Kimberly Tajeda, Stephen Vellecca and Nicole Godnick
Halloween is the one night each year where you can be whatever or whoever you want! Once October hits, kids, teens and adults alike rush to the store to try to find the perfect costume; the possibilities are endless! You could be a monster, movie star, an adventurer and more! But where do we draw the line? Most costumes are innocent fun, but many that have traditionally been seen as harmless amusement— hula dancer, indian, homeless person, or a Ninja, for instance—are not as harmless or amusing as they seem.
The main idea here is simply that the culture or circumstances of others are NOT a costume. You may be able to take off that costume at the end of the night, but many others cannot. It is their identity and their reality.
That is why it is so important to consider this when searching for the “perfect” costume. Take a minute to really think about what you are wearing. If you are wondering if it is offensive or an example of cultural appropriation, it probably is.
Cultural appropriation occurs when someone, typically (but not in every case) from a privileged socioeconomic background, borrows elements from oppressed and historically marginalized groups; or from groups outside of their own, for the purpose of appearing different in a way that is comedic, exaggerated and stereotyped.
Cultural appropriation may not seem like a big deal to many but to some it is personal, it is their lives. That is why it is so critical to recognize that cultural appropriation is a problem in today’s world across all segments of society. One of the biggest consequences of this practice is that it keeps the oppression of the non-dominant culture going.
When we look at a culture that is oppressed, it is often the result of colonization, where a dominant group claims ownership of the land and its people. The practice of using someone’s culture as your own costume is relevant to that practice: the idea that you are taking over something that is important to many, that you do not completely understand. Moreover, as stated above, cultural appropriation frequently contributes to stereotypes faced by non-dominant cultures.
Here are some examples of appropriation that can occur on Halloween:
Indigenous person costume
Originally known as Regalia is Indigenous culture’s reference to the traditional and often sacred clothing, accessories and artifacts worn or carried during various ceremonies, such as powwows, celebrations and pan-national gatherings. The design, type and meaning of Regalia varies greatly depending on the individual who wears it, the culture from which it originates and the event where it is worn. Individuals may use certain components of this culture in order to portray a stereotypical indigenous person in costume.
Why is this appropriation?
People usually incorrectly label these cultural pieces as “costumes”. Indigenous regalia is a living art that incorporates a variety of materials. When people wear Native American clothing for fun, people are just continuously failing to recognize that this is someone’s culture and someone’s ancestor was killed for wearing their clothes.
The ninja costume
This is a very common costume on Halloween, and may seem to be completely harmless. The traditional title for a ninja is a shinobi, and their title means “to steal away; to hide.” Many ninjas were originally hired from the lower class and their tactics were seen as underhanded and less honorable than that of the samurai. Therefore, there is not a lot of information or historical focus on them. It wasn’t until the 15th century that spies were specially trained for their espionage and spy tactics. It was also around this time that the word shinobi appeared to define and clearly identify ninja as a secretive group of agents.
Why is this appropriation?
You are taking a form of Japanese culture and changing it into something that can no longer appreciate or celebrate the importance of that costume to this group.
Ninjas are people who had a secretive, yet rich history filled with twists, turns and involvements in major battles where they could’ve made the difference in that battle. The history of the Ninja has already been partially covered due to the nature of their work, and it is not up to us to fill in the blanks with what we romanticize Ninjas as. We need to respect their history and their purpose, while making sure that we don’t disrespect their culture by appropriating their history for a costume.
Blackface’s origin dates back to the mid-19th century in its debut in shows where white performers would darken their skin with polish and cork, as well as put on “tattered clothing” which was supposed to represent an exaggerated stereotype of the black individual. It makes light of the struggle behind the tattered clothing which often is associated with clothing that slaves wore. These actors designed blackface to dehumanize the black community with this practice by making an example of their pain. A popular blackface character was Jim Crow.
Why is this appropriation?
This type of culture appropriation is deemed harmful to not only the black community, but people of color (POC) because it stereotypes this community and makes mockery of their background. A POC’s appearance is not a costume.
Wearing blackface is harmful because it has been and continues to be used to create a portrayal of Black Americans, exaggerating the Black form and reinforcing racist stereotypes. It has historically been used to perpetuate the myth that Black people are inferior to white people.
In Hawaiian culture, both male and female hula dancers may wear skirts, known as pa`u. Traditionally made of barkcloth, modern hula dance skirts may be made from woven cloth with dyed, painted, or silk screen designs. Ancient Hawaiian dancers usually wore nothing above the waists, but today female dancers usually wear a muumuu, pareau or strapless-style top. Colors used in tops and skirts are often coordinated to reflect the intention of dance. If the dance is performed to honor an ancient water deity, costumes will have a water theme using blue and green colors and shell accents. Leis are another clothing item of Hula dancers depicted wrong. Leis are made from natural materials, such as shells, nuts, feathers or fragrant plants, such as the fern. It turns their culture into a novelty act, which it already is because people frequently regard Hawaii and the Hawaiian culture as a source of entertainment and a piece of paradise rather than a home to actual people with real cultures and customs.
Why is this appropriation?
The practice of hula itself has been historically oppressed. During this time, the art of hula only resurfaced to be commodified by the tourist and Hollywood film industries. Hula and its cultural significance was reduced to cheap, hip-shaking dance routines by women who wore coconut bras and plastic grass skirts at hotels.
While traditional hula is no longer illegal and is being revived by Hawaiians both in Hawaii and around the world, their culture is still under attack from cheap costumes that claim to represent them. People who dress up as hula dancers are perpetuating the very white-washed image of them in the media that we are attempting to resist.
These are just a few examples of many. We are not saying that you can’t dress up in the way of a culture or lifestyle different from your own—of course you can! But it is important that you do it in a way that reflects appreciation and not appropriation, or to educate about that culture in the most accurate way possible. Starting to listen to those who are a part of the history of another culture is one of the best ways to understand and appreciate it. Pay attention to their stories, comprehend the implications of the aspects of their culture that interest you and use that comprehension to broaden your worldview. Appreciating other cultures involves mutual interest and respect toward learning about that culture. Keep in mind that someone else’s culture or appearance is not your costume, so be cautious for Halloween’s to come!