Avoiding Cultural Appropriation on Halloween

photo courtesy of STARS

Fall has finally arrived! I think I speak for everyone when I say fall is the best season, although I may be a little biased. The colors are beautiful, your most beloved sweater sees the light of day again, and best of all, Halloween is on the horizon. Being a Halloween lover, I take the month of October very seriously. It is practically required to watch a full season of American Horror Story (again) and enjoy some form of a classic horror film with a healthy serving of candy. At the end of the month, I love seeing all of the creative costumes people think up. However, with Halloween coming up, we need to continue to be self-aware, and  although this can be a fun holiday, it still comes with the responsibility of being culturally respectful. Sadly, I’ve noticed more and more blatant cultural appropriation when looking at Halloween costumes.

First, let’s talk about the definition of cultural appropriation. This is when members of a certain culture use elements from a different culture in a derogatory way. This can be seen everyday in our media and is highly problematic since it negatively impacts people of the victimized culture. Some instances of cultural appropriation may seem minuscule or trivial to others, but to the victimized culture, it is a serious disrespect. Appropriating some aspect of another culture is offensive because it perpetuates the idea that culture is a costume and can be used at others’ disposal. Typically, the group appropriating another culture is white, so they stand in the position of power and abuse this power for their own entertainment. Around Halloween, cultural appropriation becomes more prominent, even normalized, simply because people are uneducated of its harmful effects. Halloween is a holiday for amusement, and it does not inconvenience you in any way to choose a costume that will not be highly offensive to someone else. Let’s look at some of the most common costume choices you should aim to avoid this Halloween.

“The Indian”

This type of costume is very common, yet highly problematic, because American Indian people are not a culture or  trend to dress up as. When looking at America, it is important to remember the history of white people and their oppression of American Indians. By dressing up in Indian costumes, you are perpetuating misrepresentations and stereotypes American Indians have been portrayed as in our culture, such as the “savage” or the sexualized “indian princess”. This consequently acts as though American Indian people do not still exist and are simply people of the past to dress up as, which erases the history of violence and genocide, while ignoring the fact that American Indians are still among us today.

“Day of the Dead”

This type of costume appears almost anywhere, typically in the “horror” or “sexy” category when shopping. Day of the Dead costumes are troublesome because this Mexican holiday is a completely separate cultural celebration from the American Halloween. Day of the Dead takes place on October 31, but can also continue through November 2. It is a time to remember loved ones who have passed away and take a moment to honor those who have died by creating altars and visiting graves. As with many holidays, it is additionally celebrated with traditional food, artwork, and various other cultural celebrations. So, when sexualized Day of the Dead or candy skull costumes are flying off the shelves for people who are not a part of this culture, it is obvious how this would be offensive to people who truly celebrate this holiday. If you are dying to go for the creepy skull look, try sporting a good old skeleton costume instead.

Anything “Blackface”

To even have to explain that this would be offensive is sad, but today, some people still assume this is an acceptable costume. It is blatantly wrong and racist on so many levels to paint your skin a different color to fit a “silly” costume. The problem with this is that you wear this skin color for the night, and when Halloween is over and you wipe off the darker color, you are back to experiencing your privilege of being white. There is nothing wrong with having this privilege, it is simply wrong to dress up as someone else’s ethnicity or race without acknowledging the struggle and racism that comes along with it. Color is not an appropriate costume!


The word gypsy is oftentimes used as a derogatory term for the indigenous Romani people of Europe. The term has been used throughout history as a way to discriminate and ostracize this indigenous group. Gypsies have been targeted in history by Hitler and other oppressive systems. There is controversy over reclaiming this term and whether or not it is derogatory or acceptable to use as a description of race rather than a lifestyle. In either situation, it is unacceptable to wear this as a costume. Gypsies or indigenous Romani people are not characters to dress up as, since it refers to an actual group of indigenous people that have been stereotyped as criminals and wanderers. So this Halloween, let’s avoid playing into these stereotypes.
The list can and does extend; these were just some of the most common costumes I spotted while browsing for a few minutes. To summarize, choose to steer clear of any costume portraying a racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive stereotype. This includes anything from “geishas” to “sexy Arabian princesses” to Caitlyn Jenner. Halloween can still be an entertaining holiday without being offensive! There are so many characters out there, and it doesn’t hurt to think twice about what you might dress up as for Halloween. Simply take a step back and analyze what you could be perpetuating with your costume choice. Being self-aware in this way can help make Halloween a safer and more comfortable holiday for everyone. By taking steps to make the environment more accepting on this single day, it paves the path to start thinking about these harmful stereotypes and ideas every day. Taking a moment to analyze why this happens in our culture helps raise awareness and potentially educate people on respect for other cultures. All in all, don’t use Halloween as an excuse to be offensive. It only takes a minute to reevaluate your choices and consider how they may be perceived. Let’s make this Halloween the best yet!


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