Cultural Halloween costumes are scary for all the wrong reasons

With Halloween just around the corner, you might be scrambling to find a last-minute costume for whatever festivities you plan on partaking in.

If you’re going to be browsing through the nearest Halloween pop-up store, amongst the “Caribbean Pirate” and “Elf Warrior Deluxe” costumes, you may come across others like the “Native American Brave,” or the “Sensei Master.” What’s scary about them isn’t the axe or the menacing eyebrows: it’s the fact that costumes like these appropriate marginalized cultures.

In simple terms, cultural appropriation is adopting an aspect of another culture without permission. It sounds harmless at first, but in reality it has a negative effect on how people view their own culture.

“When we carelessly adopt the culture of oppressed groups without regard to history, unequal power dynamics, and the political context of our actions, we risk causing further damage,” wrote activist Jamia Wilson in an article for the New York Times.

Unfortunately, the cultural groups in question are not always taken into account, especially when profit is involved.

Lamees Wajahat, a third-year Ryerson journalism student, points out how some clothing companies, like Urban Outfitters, sell jewellery, religious symbols, and clothing styles from her Pakistani culture, stripping them of their deep cultural roots and turning them into mere fashion accessories.

“My little sister hated wearing colourful bangles and henna for a while because a girl said her hands looked diseased,” Wajahat said. “Henna and bangles are sold at Urban Outfitters now.

“Even the new trend of a long dress or shirt over pants is reminiscent of cultural clothing — the same clothing I was mocked for wearing growing up.”

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can never wear a salwar kameez for the rest of your life. If you’ve been invited to partake in a cultural event, such as a wedding, then you might be okay.

If you’re dressing for Halloween, however, it’s best to stay away from costumes like the “Native American Brave” or “Sensei Master.” Costumes like these can be very offensive, and they perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Although your new costume may be a hit at the party, it will be at the expense of marginalized groups feeling ashamed of their own culture.

“My culture and all it gives me is part of my identity,” Wajahat said. “To be ignored as an underdeveloped and backward ethnic/religious person is unfair while only parts of me are celebrated.”

So while deciding on a look this year, keep in mind that a culture is not a costume. There’s a difference between appreciation and appropriation, and any cultural outfit that comes stuffed in a plastic bag most likely crosses that line.

Besides, most of the looks you should avoid are overpriced and unoriginal anyway. Opt instead for something spooky, like the Grim Reaper or student loans.

Featured image by Kayla Johnson / CC BY 2.0