What Makes A Halloween Costume Culturally Appropriative? Here’s A Practical Guide

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It's coming close to Halloween, the night on which the dead rise, children get sugar highs that last until Thanksgiving, and celebrities and college kids across the nation inevitably don costumes that will land them in serious hot water the day after. If you're unsure what the fuss around what makes a Halloween costume culturally appropriative is all about, this is the place to come. We've assembled some questions to ask yourself to make sure your costume doesn't appropriate anybody's culture this All Hallow's Eve, as well as some ideas of costumes to don instead.

While the debate around cultural appropriation is often played out in certain media as part of "stuffy PC culture," it's actually so much more simple than that; why deliberately cause someone offense when you could just not? Things aren't "getting more uptight," but rather, people are becoming more aware of how insensitive costume wearing can affect others, and why it isn't okay to use someone's culture play dress-up for a night. And while Halloween is meant to be a holiday of scares and thrills, it's also not frivolous to want to respect the cultures and traditions of others. The moving cultural goalposts about acceptable behavior on Halloween night aren't the death of fun: They're major progress. Here's how to adjust your costume accordingly.

Is It Considered Sacred In Someone's Culture?

The use of symbols, gods, headgear, clothing, and other attributes sacred or important to another culture, particularly one that has been systematically oppressed by white people, is a classic case of cultural appropriation to avoid. It can be hard to explain why you shouldn't do it, particularly if the people putting on the costume just want to "show their love" or to "pay homage" to that culture, but the simple explanation lies in the fact that it's just not okay.

This is why bindis, Native American headdresses and attire, Hindu god and goddess costumes, Buddhist monk robes, saris, Japanese wedding attire, and other co-optings of revered ideas are completely insensitive and off the mark for people who aren't from that culture. They've been invested with meaning by other cultures, and many of those cultures have experienced erasure or subjugation by white Western values. Coming in and attempting to take the "pretty" bits, even if you think they're beautiful, is another way of denying the sophisticated value and centuries of history imbued in those elements. They might seem like simple objects, but they carry a lot of weight, and you have to respect that.

What to do: If you really want to go as something spiritual or mystical, go for a culture that hasn't been the subject of oppression. Greek myths make for impressive costumes (Minotaurs? Ariadne turning into a spider? Apollo in his chariot? Amazing). But don't look at ancient gods and assume that they'll be unlikely to create a modern stir; the fox spirits of Japanese folklore might be ancient, for example, but they're still a part of cultural history and superstition, and don't belong to anybody but the Japanese.

Does It Play Off A Racial Or Cultural Stereotype?

Think deeply about what you're doing before you step out your door. Stereotypes that need to be avoided include "gypsies" ( Roma people will not appreciate it), any kind of sombrero-wearing, cheongsams as a stand-in for "Asian" culture, or anything that paints an entire race or culture with a broad brush. Even things you might think are cute or complimentary, like the "Latin lover," are not going to sit well with people who are actually Latinx. If it's a shorthand for a certain kind of cultural stereotype, it's not going to fly.

What to do: Avoid any kind of costume that dwells on cultural stereotypes as a way to make a point. Even predominantly white cultural touchstones (French stripy shirts and berets, German lederhosen) are a bit dumb, to be honest. Are cultures actually a costume? Can't we do better than that?

Does It Fetishize or Sexualize An Entire Culture?

Marginalized people have had to cope with stereotypes about their sexual availability for centuries — and it's particularly harmful considering that many of those same women were enslaved and experienced sexual violence regularly at the hands of white men throughout history. It's safe to say that they are extremely sick of it and don't need it reinforced by your sexy geisha costume. It's kind of stomach-churning, to be honest.

What to do: There are approximately four million ways to be sexy without being offensive. Sexualize zombies, apple pies, supermarket tote bags, lizards: The world is your oyster. Dress as David Bowie and destroy everybody in a five-mile radius with your raw sexual power. But going with sexy marginalized person? It's not just lazy and boring; it's profoundly offensive.

Does It Involve Painting On Someone's Skin Color?

There's continual discussion about whether or not it's OK to pay homage to a public figure who's a member of another culture or race. Is it alright to dress up as Naomi Campbell for her legendary model status, or Frida Kahlo with her impact on art, if you yourself are a white woman? Opinions differ on this one. On the one hand, you can certainly pay homage to celebs of a different race without highlighting their race as part of it. On the other, as a white person, I personally would prefer to avoid paying homage to a non-white person on Halloween, especially if they are notable for reasons having to do with their status as a minority. One thing there should be no discussion about, though? Blackface, yellowface, or brownface. Painting on someone else's skin color is never, ever OK. Not even if you're dressing up as Rachel Dolezal (which is a bad idea anyway). It's pointless and offensive. (Same goes for putting on an accent.)

What to do: Halloween is not a time to pretend that you're another race. Ever. Again, there are a million and one other costumes you can do that don't appropriate someone's race or culture. When in doubt, just don't do it.