Skip the headdress, grab a broomstick: Cultural appropriation and Halloween


BY SHRUTI RAM – STAFF WRITER

Halloween: the season of pumpkin-spiced-everything, candy, and racially insensitive costumes. On the quest to find a costume that’s “funny” or “sexy” enough, some people cross a fine line when they appropriate other cultures into their costumes. This can be done in several different ways. There are blatantly racist costumes, which a lot of people think can be excused because it can also be funny; there is unintended sexualizing of different racial and ethnic minorities; and there is the incorporation of cultural symbols into a costume inappropriately. However, we have to remember that Halloween is not a get-out-jail-free card for cultural appropriation or racism, no matter how mild.

What is cultural appropriation? It’s the “Navajo” shirts sold by Urban Outfitters that are a poor attempt at some “tribal” pattern, and have nothing to do with the Native American tribe it cites in order to make more money. It’s the clothes emblazoned with Hindu Gods and symbols that make me so deeply disturbed whenever I see them, because people from my own culture would not tote aspects of our faith as fashion statements, let alone someone not a part of it. It’s the Native American headdresses worn at Coachella, when it is truly a sacred war bonnet and only worn by certain tribes. It’s the Kardashians wearing braids to look “hip” and “in” with black culture when a multitude of black Americans are sidelined in job interviews for having “urban hairstyles.” It’s Miley Cyrus and Kendall Jenner turning bindis into fashion statements, when I was bullied so harshly for wearing one in elementary school I don’t think I could ever wear one again. It’s the bastardization of culture by those who understand it. It’s retailers that profit from marketing other cultures to you, not the people who know the true meaning behind their cultural symbols.

Cultural appropriation is always a social problem, but around Halloween, cultural and racial symbols are marketed in a different way. Every year Halloween costume stores seem hell-bent on sexualizing everything from nuns to Disney characters, and while this is still inappropriate, what about when that sexualization extends to different cultures?

Almost every Halloween store sells some variation of the “Sexy Native American Indian” outfit. The male version usually depicts a shirtless white male with random paint markings intended to seem “tribal,” and wearing a headdress. The female version is more disturbing: she is usually also white and she has a few feathers in her hair. Her dress is brown with a lot of fringe, and is also very short and low cut.

Alternatively, another common Halloween costume is the Mexican Halloween costume. Usually it shows a person with a fringed poncho, sombrero, comically large moustache, maracas, and sometimes a glass of tequila or even an attached donkey.

Junior Kortney Trevino, who is part Hispanic, spoke to the feelings aroused by the racist Mexican costume she saw on the internet.

“It’s appropriating a culture,” Trevino said. “The fact that he’s barefoot is kind of what makes it a bit bothersome for me but at the same time I understand the humor in it. It’s a silly costume and there are plenty of silly costumes about American culture too. It’s just that for a white American it can just be a silly one time joke they don’t ever think about again. For people who are Latino or Hispanic it’s an everyday thing. We don’t get to take off the costume and that’s what people have to remember.”

Think about which section these culturally insensitive costumes are usually found in, the “funny” and “sexy” sections. These cultures are clearly more than just fun and sexy, but people are more aware of those aspects than their deeper values or traditions. Wearing sugar skull makeup, for example, is appropriating Latino culture, as it turns a symbol of Dia De Los Muertos, which is a sacred day that is supposed to bring them closer to their families and honor the dead, into a costume.

I am not saying Centre College has a big problem with racist Halloween costumes, or that people who pick out these costumes always necessarily do it with the intention of being blatantly racist. Most sexy costumes are chosen because you probably looked hot in it. The thing is your costume can still perpetuate harmful stereotypes and stigmas, which then makes it more acceptable to have openly racist attitudes.

The “We’re a Culture, not a Costume” campaign was started to highlight these negative effects of racially insensitive Halloween costumes. People with Mexican heritage do not want people to think of tacos and tequila and running away from border patrol when they think of Mexican people. Native Americans living on reservations in the United States look nothing like what their sexualized Halloween costumes depict them as. In fact, there are 310 Indian reservations in the United States, who all practice various traditions, and cannot simply be lumped in one group.

The point is not that your costume shouldn’t be funny or sexy, but there are plenty of costumes that can be that aren’t at the expense of a racial or ethnic group. These costumes capitalize on harmful stereotypes, and can create a culture of ingrained racism.

Members of the Centre community are undoubtedly intelligent and accepting, but we are not always aware of how our actions affect others. Hopefully, when you pick your costumes this Halloween, you’ll pick the classic Batman villain over the Mexican Taco.


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