PSA: These 7 Halloween “Costumes” Will Always Be Offensive

Dressing up as a cultural stereotype is never, ever OK.

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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.


A Ninja

Movies and TV make ninjas look super sexy, but most of what we know about ninjas is wrong, according to historian Steven Turnbull in his book Ninja: Unmasking The Myth. Ninjas aren't super sneaky characters that fight in dark shadows — they were fighters who did similar work to our modern-day CIA. This kind of costume parodies the real-life ninjas who existed in Japan.


A "Voodoo" Witch Doctor

“Voodoo" is often used as a catch-all term for several related religions practiced in Louisiana, Brazil, and the Caribbean, according to research by Danielle M. Boaz, a professor in the Africana Studies department at the University of Charlotte. Costumes that represent “witch doctors” or what’s properly known today as Vodou are marketed as scary, exacerbating harmful stereotypes about real religions.


A Native American Princess

Dressing up like another racial group for Halloween is never acceptable. This costume is especially gross considering the mass genocide of Indigenous Americans during the time of the United States' founding, and considering that Native Americans continue to experience discrimination on an exceptionally high level, according to a 2019 study published in Health Services Research. “When you hypersexualize a people who are at highest risk of sexual violence by wearing these ‘PocaHottie’ or ‘Indian Chief’ costumes,” Jordan Marie Daniels wrote for Bustle in 2018, “you are contributing to the depersonalization at the core of this issue.”


Day Of The Dead Skulls

Halloween and the Day of the Dead are not the same, and even if they were, it wouldn't be cool to use symbols from the latter to celebrate the former. According to National Geographic, Día De Los Muertos is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1 — All Souls Day — to honor friends and family who have passed away. Sugar skulls or calaveras are a symbol of Día De Los Muertos and of Mexican culture — not a cute way to paint your face for a “haunted” bar crawl.


A Geisha

Many don a geisha costume under the assumption that it's "sexy," but there are a number of reasons why that's super not cool. For one, geishas were entertainers, but they were not sex workers, as many people falsely believe. For another, unless you’re dressing up as a specific geisha from history, the costume depends on dressing up as a stereotyped version of a cultural figure.


A "Senorita"

If you break it down, dressing up as a “señorita” means you’re “dressing up” as a random Spanish-speaking person — and it would be pretty weird if someone dressed up for Halloween as you, right? Using another culture’s dress or symbols as a joke will always be offensive.


A Bollywood Star

Bollywood is a popular genre around the world, but wearing traditional Indian dress and calling it "Bollywood" isn't a costume — it flattens of all Indian culture into one trope. Selena Gomez's 2013 MTV Movie Awards performance, for example, got furious responses from Hindu leaders and Indian celebrities.

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

Studies cited:

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