Cultures aren’t costumes

October 27, 2018 GMT

To customers eagerly browsing the crowded aisles of their local costume store before Halloween, the possibilities for something fun to dress up as are nearly endless. Do they want to be scary? Sexy? Serious? Do they want to go as their favorite comic book character or their favorite musician?

But shoppers these days have another factor to contend with in selecting a costume: Will it offend someone?

Some costumes previously considered to be lighthearted — such as cultural warriors, prison inmates and dead celebrities — have been condemned for insensitivity in recent years. One central aspect of the discussion over appropriate costumes is the issue of cultural appropriation. The long-held debate over Halloween costumes and the demand for cultural sensitivity is becoming increasingly complex and far-reaching — and there is more than one side to the story.


Cultural appropriation, simply put, is taking elements of someone else’s culture without permission, particularly in a way that appears to maintain or encourage stereotypes or assumptions about people of a particular race or ethnicity. A prime example of this can be as straightforward as blackface — using paint or makeup to intentionally mock African-Americans. But lines can become blurred when people want to dress as a geisha, Pocahontas or even a fictional character of a different race.

In September 2017, Disney pulled costumes related to the movie Moana, which features a Polynesian princess, after the outfits — which included simulated brown skin and fake tribal tattoos — were deemed offensive by many activists. In October 2017, Spirit Halloween Costumes was called out online for selling Halloween costumes based on Native American stereotypes. These are hardly isolated cases.

According to its website, Party City’s top-selling adult costumes this year include characters from popular culture and recent movie releases, such as Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, some of the store’s more controversial get-ups include Moana, Cleopatra and “Wakanda Warriors” from the film Black Panther.

Deborah Garcia-Ramirez, who was shopping on a recent day at the Santa Fe Party City store, said she takes issue with some of these costumes.

“[Characters like] Cleopatra were actually real people,” Garcia-Ramirez said. “… Cleopatra was a black African, and when you see her portrayed in costumes by white people, it just allows people to continue to see a white woman as her.”


The popular Halloween store chain has been slammed online in the past for costumes such as “The Wall” in reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign promise, which was condemned as “directly racist” by Teen Vogue in 2017, and the company was ridiculed on Facebook in 2015 for selling Native American costumes that some critics said promoted and perpetuated racial stereotypes.

The company responded to this criticism with an online comment: “Nothing we sell is meant to be offensive” and “there is demand for a wide variety of Halloween costumes.”

“The costumes we sell are so people can dress up as pretty much anything they want,” Party City employee Jeff Mazulis told Generation Next. “We sell the outfits, wigs, face paint, but I don’t think that we encourage blackface or anything like that. … [Ultimately] it’s people’s choice how they wear the costumes.”

For some, Halloween is a holiday not meant to be taken too seriously. They say there should be room to role-play.

“It’s the one day of the year people can be whatever they want. Just for one night, people should let it be fun,” said Santa Fe High School Student Abram Colson. “I should be able to dress up however I want because it’s about pretending, not making fun of anyone.”

Others see it differently.

Fashion law professor Susan Scafidi told USA Today in 2017 that some costumes can offend.

“What happens with Halloween costumes is people start to dress up as individuals from other cultures, and it makes people from those other cultures almost feel dehumanized. ‘Like what am I? A ghost? Am I a unicorn? I’m really just another human being,’ ” Scafidi said. “… [It can] make people feel as though they’re essentially degraded.”

Local teen Caroline Lee-Burnham, who is Asian-American, said it makes her uncomfortable when people dress up in costumes related to Asian culture.

“When people try to wear them as sexy, revealing dresses … it’s really degrading to my culture,” she said. “It feels really disrespectful because that’s not their culture at all.”

Santa Fe Indian School student Clifton Mora agreed.

“I grew up dressing in [traditional Native garments] because that’s what we wear, [just like] the food we eat and the ceremonies we perform,” he said. “It really isn’t a costume at all, so dressing up like it doesn’t make sense.”

Hypersexualization is another facet of cultural appropriation that can be seen as largely offensive and disrespectful. “Sexy” Halloween costumes can come in nearly any shape or form, but those that sexualize an aspect of certain peoples or traditions — a nurse or nun — are seen by many as crossing the line.

As teen activist Ariana Gilpin wrote on her Twitter page: “Native women still have the highest rates of rape and assault in the country. Think about that next time you decide to go as a ‘sexy Indian princess’ for Halloween.”

Scafidi recommended some basic rules when it comes to picking out a Halloween costume.

“Do your homework,” she said in that 2017 USA Today interview. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes figuratively, before you do so actually. And think about how someone else might feel if you were dressed up as the sexy or slutty version of them for Halloween. … Think about whether or not you’re turning someone’s everyday 21st-century culture into a caricature.

“If we lived in a perfect world, we could all dress up as one another without giving offense,” Scafidi said. “But there are historical realities and ongoing social issues and we just have to respect that that’s part of where America is right now, and maybe pull back from that kind of masquerade.”

Natalia Payne is a sophomore at Santa Fe High School. Contact her at