Americans have associated Halloween with evil witches and spooky skeletons for years. Recently, however, historically oppressed groups have brought to light the issue of cultural appropriation, which might be scarier than any supernatural creature.
Cultural appropriation takes many forms, but its most basic comprises members of a privileged group mimicking select aspects of an oppressed culture for amusement. In the context of Halloween, our supposedly post-racial nation has seen too many instances of white people wearing blackface and objectifying the rich cultures of minorities to use as costumes.
Supermodel and TV persona Heidi Klum dressed up as a Hindu goddess in 2008. Reality star Paris Hilton dressed up as a Native American with a sexy twist in 2010. Actress Julianne Hough donned blackface as “Orange Is the New Black” character, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in 2013.
In a country so immersed in popular culture, if influential figures are engaging in such offensive behaviors, what can we expect of ordinary citizens?
On one hand, we have a culturally privileged group making the argument that, by dressing up in these costumes, they are celebrating these groups. Members of underprivileged groups disagree and take offense, rightfully so, for two main reasons.
First, culturally-appropriated costumes strengthen the false stereotypes that these groups have fought so hard to end. By objectifying cultures and minimizing them to costumes, appropriators disregard the complexity of the cultures they claim to be celebrating. When someone dresses up in a sombrero and poncho while holding a maraca in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other, they feed into the common belief that the “fiesta culture” is all any Latin American group has to offer. This not only neglects the clear distinction among cultures in Latin America, but it also disrespects everyone from there.
Second, it is hypocritical to claim to be celebrating a culture which faced discrimination by the appropriators’ culture in the past. When people dress up as Native Americans for Halloween, they disregard years of mistreatment. Anyone who partakes in blackface blatantly ignores the grossly offensive origins of the practice and the hardships and inequality that blacks continue to face in this country.
It’s important to highlight that some people might not engage in cultural appropriation out of malice but ignorance. Nevertheless, actions like these contribute to the racial divide in America. We need to fight this ignorance and take it upon ourselves to educate each other, especially during Halloween.
Andrea Illan is a freshman majoring in journalism and political science.