Cady Heron once remarked that “In the real world, Halloween is when kids dress up and beg for candy.” The Mean Girls protagonist had slightly more disparaging things to say about what Halloween means in girl world, but she neglected to mention that the holiday has also become a minefield for cultural appropriation. Every year, costume retailers sell get-ups based on cultural stereotypes, and every year, people erroneously think it’s appropriate to wear them to their neighbor’s house party.
“Cultural appropriation is taking an aspect of a culture, typically from a marginalized cultural or group with less power, without giving proper credit or respect to that culture,” Raechele Pope, Ed.D., an expert on inclusivity and associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Buffalo, tells Bustle. She explains that while some might argue that playing dress-up is just a way of showing appreciation or love, “that is not how it is experienced by members of the culture.” Pope adds that the practice reinforces stereotypes, distorts cultures, and can affect the health and wellbeing of people who are already devalued by society.
So what does that look like, especially in something so seemingly trivial as a Halloween costume? Dr. Pope says it’s incorporating cultural dresses, dances, or music from marginalized groups into a costume, because it diminishes them and their importance. “Being interested in other cultures is never the problem,” Dr. Pope says. “Our interest should be informed by members of the culture and how they want it to be shared.”
That’s why it’s not necessarily culturally appropriative to dress up as a TV or movie character who belongs to a race or ethnic group other than your own. For example, Auli’i Cravalho, the native Hawaiian actor who voiced Moana in the Pixar film, told People in 2018 that it was totally appropriate for children of any background to dress up as the character. “I would encourage anyone who wants to dress up as a wayfinder who journeys beyond her reef to figure out who she truly is,” Cravalho said.
But culturally appropriative Halloween costumes are offensive because they reduce a culture to, well, a literal costume — one that certain groups of people can take off, but others live with every day. It’d be hurtful to dress up, for example, as a “Polynesian princess,” especially if doing so meant exaggerating or trivializing important cultural characteristics. Similarly, it’d be offensive to dress up as Moana if the wearer, say, changed the color of their skin as part of the “costume.”
The line between appropriate and appropriative Halloween costumes doesn’t have to be so blurry. If you’re ever confused about whether your costume choice might be offensive, that’s a sign that you should go with another option. (Perhaps a mouse? Duh?) As a gentle reminder of what culturally insensitive Halloween costumes look like, here are seven common costumes you should definitely never wear.
Most of these examples are fairly obvious because they depict racial stereotypes that, honestly, should've disappeared a long, long time ago. Fortunately — and, again, obviously — there are many, many, many Halloween costumes that don't culturally appropriate and aren't offensive. Here's an easy rule of thumb: If you need to explain why your costume "isn't racist," you should reconsider your costume.
Raechele Pope, Ed.D., an expert on inclusivity and associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Buffalo
Findling, M. G., Casey, L. S., Fryberg, S. A., Hafner, S., Blendon, R. J., Benson, J. M., Sayde, J. M., & Miller, C. (2019). Discrimination in the United States: Experiences of Native Americans. Health services research, 54 Suppl 2(Suppl 2), 1431–1441. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6773.13224