It seems to me that with every season and popular celebration comes another opportunity to take part in the latest Western trend of cultural appropriation. Halloween is no exception.
McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office’s October newsletter notes that cultural appropriation occurs when “somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own,” and that “cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”
Obviously, in an increasingly globalized world, an exchange of culture is unavoidable and can even be beneficial. But the key term here is appropriation: taking something for one’s own use without the consent of the owner. The sharing of cultures with permission is great, but taking from other cultures without their permission, often purely for aesthetic purposes with no understanding of the cultural significance of what’s being appropriated, can be incredibly harmful.
Halloween is often used as an excuse to dress up as an offensive caricature or stereotype of a particular culture, ethnicity, or marginalized group. Spirit Halloween, one of the most popular costume stores in the U.S. and Canada, offers a wide selection of racist gems this year, such as the “Wild Spirit,” “Sexy Dreamcatcher,” “Reservation Royalty,” “Tribal Temptation,” and of course, the “Pocahottie” – and those are only the costumes featured in the “Cowboys and Indians” section.
These oversexualized, cartoonish costumes attempting to depict some inaccurate, homogenized image of traditional Indigenous clothing are very popular. At a “Wild, Wild West”-themed Halloween event earlier this month, Montreal Alouettes linebacker Kyries Hebert sported one such costume – facepaint, a loincloth, and a feathered headdress. His costume partner wore a matching dress and headpiece.
As a public figure whose team plays on Kanien’kehá:ka territory, Hebert should have known better than to participate in what is obviously racist stereotyping. In response to Hebert’s costume debacle, Jessica Deer of the Kahnawake newspaper the Eastern Door wrote, “Indigenous people constantly have to defend their own identities from being mocked, used as a trend and a form of entertainment. […] Since they are highly inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals that are rooted in colonial ideology, all they accomplish is creating more layers of misinformation about [who] we really are.”
Not only was Hebert’s costume racially insensitive, to say the least, but the similar costume worn by the woman he attended the party with was also particularly distasteful. Consider that Pocahontas, a historical figure now depicted as a seductive, oversexualized vixen in most costumes, is understood to be a survivor of rape herself; such a hypersexualized depiction of her likeness does an incredible dishonour to her memory and the memories of Indigenous women who have faced sexual violence.
When Indigenous women in Canada face extreme levels of sexual and physical violence – with Indigenous women three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be victims of violent crime, and conservative estimates stating that more than 1,000 Indigenous women having been murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012 – the dehumanizing hypersexualization of Indigenous women that these types of costumes promote is actively harmful. It trivializes this disproportionate violence that is so often ignored and delegitimized.
Despite the manifold offences the duo’s costumes presented, Hebert’s apology was half-hearted to say the least. “We’re not really talking about that so much,” he told the CBC. “There’s an understanding. There’s an apology, and now I’m focused on what’s coming up in the future.”
Hebert’s flippant reaction serves to illustrate the fact that cultural appropriation is not often acknowledged as a legitimate and serious offence, on Halloween or any other day of the year. In fact, cultural appropriation as a practice exists commonly outside of Halloween, occurring regularly in fashion and entertainment, whether being exhibited on the Victoria’s Secret runway or making annual appearances at music festivals like Coachella. The repercussions of cultural appropriation – dehumanization, misrepresentation, stereotyping – have gone largely unrecognized outside of social justice groups. Appropriators can choose to don entire cultures as costumes, or merely pick and choose what they like best. Regardless, someone’s culture is being degraded and exploited.
Cultural appropriation isn’t limited to headdresses. The appropriation of religious symbols has become a prevalent part of contemporary fashion and ‘boho’ chic. People with no connection to religious symbols like the Om used in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, or the Hamsa used by Jewish and Muslim people in North Africa and the Middle East, continue to wear them as tattoos and in jewelry, despite explicit disapproval from many members of the religious and cultural groups to which those symbols belong.
When these symbols are decontextualized and applied solely for their aesthetic value, they are reduced to their image, losing the rich history, complexity, and meaning behind them. For those who practice the religions these symbols are associated with, this cheapening of significant symbols can be a mark of disregard for tradition, culture, and history. The same can be said for languages and characters that are appropriated for their aesthetic value, often as tattoos.
In most cases, cultural appropriation embodies and perpetuates racial inequity. In the West, Black women are pressured to alter their natural hair to suit Eurocentric beauty standards, and are subject to racist prejudices that associate natural hair with dirtiness, criminality, or unprofessionalism. The many different ways Black women style their hair, including locs, cornrows, braids, and twists, have been discriminated against, particularly in the workplace – until recently, the U.S. army did not allow braids, twists, or locs for Black women who were officers.
In February of this year, when Black actress Zendaya walked down the Oscars red carpet wearing locs, one prominent entertainment journalist immediately “joked” that she must smell of patchouli and weed. Yet, when Kylie Jenner showed off her cornrows on Instagram and Miley Cyrus wore fake locs to the Video Music Awards, it became edgy, ‘cosmopolitan,’ and cool. White women continue to be applauded for making stylistic choices that aren’t theirs to make in the first place, based in cultures they don’t belong to, while women of colour continue to be subjected to racist double standards.
There are countless other instances of cultural appropriation I could mention; no doubt as Halloween passes the number will grow. The debate around cultural appropriation is one that uniquely combines historical oppression with popular culture – it is polarizing, contentious, and not likely to go away anytime soon. Cultural appropriation may provide a short-lived aesthetic satisfaction to its perpetrators, but it encourages the continued marginalization of racialized groups and perpetuates harmful stereotypes, encouraging us to further dehumanize people who are already oppressed. That’s a frightening reality, even for Halloween.
Minority Report is a bi-weekly column that deconstructs racism through an intersectional lens. Inori Roy-Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.