Culture  When Halloween costumes go wrong

My Culture is Not a Costume: Appropriation vs Appreciation

Every year, when Halloween rolls around, so does the ubiquitous trumpeting of racial stereotypes. October 31 seems to be a celebration of these stereotypes, as people don offensive costumes, advancing their supposedly good intentions as an excuse for cultural appropriation. But the truth is, intent does not excuse people from the impact they make – in fact, the very ignorance of the harm these costumes cause has fueled many campaigns on campuses across North America to sensitize students to these very issues.

Monday, Concordia, in collaboration with Café du MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels), hosted the discussion “My Culture is Not a Costume: Appropriation vs Appreciation,” on the differences between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Sparking questions like “Is it acceptable for a black person [but not a white person] to dress up as Obama?,” the talk aimed to explore where we draw the line between what’s considered respectful and what’s just racist. Taking inspiration from the Students Teaching About Racism in Society “We’re a culture, not a costume” poster campaign, and in response to the controversy it caused, this public conversation considered the implications of racially simplistic costumes.

Cultural insensitivity often flies under the radar, especially on Halloween with objections of “I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” and excuses like “it’s meant to be funny.” This attitude highlights the entitlement of Westerners who deem it acceptable to typecast and pigeonhole ethnic groups for entertainment purposes. It’s clear that a line has been crossed when the Halloween industry can undisputedly capitalize on minority cultures, marketing ethnic costumes as sensual, exotic, and glamorous. The sexualized, mass-produced geisha costume does nothing but devalue the culture it steals from, transforming it into a cheap commodity. Nor does the hipster headdress aid in showing ‘appreciation’ of Aboriginal people, but rather depicts an insensitivity toward Indigenous people.

The Concordia talk explored how the personification of a culture inevitably leads to a misrepresentation of the experience and identity of an ethnic group. And while people who choose to wear offensive costumes may not be personally responsible for the systemic oppression of minority groups, dressing up as an Arab terrorist or ‘ghetto fabulous,’ whether ironically or not, mocks socio-economic inequalities and perpetuates racial stereotypes. A Halloween college party is never the right setting to represent sacred garb without trivialization.

Such costumes rest on the crux of colonial legacies by objectifying and transforming an identity into something available for consumption. Through the repetition of offensive stereotypes and the reduction of people’s customs to fashion accessories, Halloween has the sad effect of commodifying culture for Western consumption. How is it that October 31 can allow us to ‘try on’ those cultures for entertainment, when for many people this very identity is tied to a history of oppression? This Halloween, we should all learn to confront systemic racism and recognize cultural appropriation as one of its most obvious forms.