We Get It—It’s Halloween, but My Culture Isn’t Your Costume

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I think it’s safe to say that many of us are excited for Halloween! (I’m googling and pinning my favorite costumes as I write this article.) And it may sound redundant to remind you that dressing in someone’s culture is simply not OK. But in light of the recent revelations that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, once a darling of the Left, dressed in brownface in 2001 at an “Arabian Nights” private school event (where he taught) and in high school put on blackface for a talent show, it’s evident the conversation needs to happen once again.

And it’s not just a white people thing—it’s an everyone thing; people of color can fall into appropriation as well. Take, for example, singer Nicki Minaj and her “Harajuku Barbie” phase when she first entered the music scene. Harajuku is an alternative Japanese fashion trend that emerged from the area around Harajuku Station in Tokyo after World War II, when the country was occupied by American military. Western influences mixed with Japanese fashion, and designers who moved into the area dubbed themselves the “Harajuku tribe.” Minaj adopted the style for an alter ego known “for speaking softly and acting much more naively than any of her other egos,” playing into the cultural stereotype of the docile and submissive Asian.

Trudeau and Minaj are just two examples of people appropriating and even benefiting financially or socially from cultures that aren’t their own. I won’t go on about how wrong it is or how racist it can be, but I will give you a couple of questions to ask yourself before you put on your Halloween costume.

1. Is this racist?

It sounds silly, but this is a legitimate question to ask yourself. Will this outfit offend someone, considering I am someone outside of this culture? Racism, as we know, is discriminating or showing prejudice against people of other races or ethnicities and also the feeling of superiority rooted in privilege. So, before you wear the costume think to yourself: Am I personifying this other ethnicity or culture with the intent to receive a reaction from people that may not be pleasant? Am I using my privilege, considering I am doing this for the night, without understanding the struggles of the community that fought to break down these stereotypes? If the answer is yes, then find a more suitable option.

2. Is this appropriating or appreciating?

The whole point of Halloween is to submerge yourself for one night (or weekend, depending on how you like to celebrate) to another character. I would rather see ten Freddy Kruegers and ten Snow Whites than to see one person dress up as Cardi B and overly emphasize her physical features in way that mocks or stereotypes a group of people. My culture isn’t a fashion trend you can wear for a night and benefit from. Yes, Pocahontas is badass, but no, she isn’t a costume to wear and to oversexualize. Again, the cultures are fighting off these stereotypes that are often rooted in misogynistic, white male-oriented gazes of how these cultures are to be perceived.

Now there’s a way to appreciate the culture without making it a costume. Go, learn, explore, and understand the struggles of the people and how the countercultures that were created in their history are now staples of cultural identifiers in the community. I think Keke Palmer’s costume from 2016, paying homage to the late Selena Quintanilla is a perfect example. Selena is an iconic Latinx singer and the Queen of Tejano music. “I remember when I first watched Selena I cried so hard that I hugged the TV,” Palmer said in a statement. “I fell in love with her music, style and her ability to be such a beacon of hope to her community. She used her voice to paint her culture all over the world, telling their stories that hadn’t been told and in being so true she touched many others and inspired so many to be proud of who they were! I AM THE PROOF.”

Keke did two things: she acknowledged who she was paying homage to and she acknowledged Selena’s significance in Latinx culture. If your costume can’t do that, then, in the wise words of RuPaul, “sashay away” from it, period.

At this point, you may be asking yourself: What can I wear for a Halloween costume? The answer is, mostly anything! Be Spider-Man, Batman, a politician, even a cat (we’ve all done it—especially when we’re on a budget). But when it comes to personification and appropriation, please just think twice—maybe five times—about the outfit before you wear it.