The cultural appropriation of Halloween
By Josh Talbot
In light of the of the pinnacle event on the spooky calendar there are question marks to be raised on Halloween and what place it has in the 21st century. In modern life, the event which takes place on the 31st of October has become commercialised and deprived of its origins, becoming an opportunity for many to dress up, go trick or treating, and watch horror movies.
Whilst many go around with ghost, vampire, witch or zombie costumes, others decide to dress up with the typical costumes of certain cultures. In the last few years this has been condemned as cultural appropriation, but why should we care?
Cultural appropriation is the practice of taking ownership of the elements of someone else’s culture (usually an oppressed group) without belonging to that culture or knowing about a potential history of oppression.
Maybe you went out dressed as a sugar candy skull with a crown of roses, but did you think about
what the significance of this dress was? Did you consider that it actually bears significant cultural meaning to the people of Mexico and that your wearing of it might have been seen as distasteful by anyone from that region?
As a white Western person, I have always felt entitled to wear whatever costume I wanted to on Halloween, without thinking twice about how my costumes might be offensive or harmful to others.
Halloween is a night in which people want to look scary or just different from the ordinary. Wearing someone’s culture as a costume on Halloween implies that said cultures are scary or threatening. As a white person living in the Western world, I never considered it a problem because I was blinded by my own privilege and sense of entitlement. I wasn’t aware of how potentially harmful it is to dress up as a Pocahontas when Native Americans have been slaughtered and deprived of their lands by the hands of my ancestors.
Cultural appropriation is a form of cultural colonialism and strengthens the power and authority that Western culture holds against the rest of the world. Why is this a problem particularly prevalent for westerners? Historically, the West violently colonised much of the world, such abuse has led to a trauma that still to this day echoes throughout many societies. Colonisation and oppression are not things of the past, they continue in this day and age to cause the same amount of harm, and are exacted through western vices such as the commodification of cultural symbols in events like Halloween.
Next Halloween test your creativity and avoid the following things: darkening your skin to look like you are from a different ethnic group and do not make sexy versions of typical cultural dresses of other communities. Disney characters are not an exception. Although you might be a massive fan of Moana, it is recommended that you do not dress up as her this Halloween out of respect for the southern pacific cultures. Pay particular attention to Day of the Dead make-up, that still counts as cultural appropriation, the Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration that occurs on the 1st of November, it has nothing to do with Halloween- which is itself rooted in pagan tradition, however abstracted from that its monetisation has made it seem.
Whilst the majority of Halloween costume can be a bit of fun, and no one is going to call you out for dressing as a zombie, skeleton or horror movie character, some are problematic.
It is unlikely that these costumes are going to disappear from trick or treaters’ wardrobes any time soon and, for the vast majority of those who wear them oblivious to the potential offence caused, there is no need to call them out on it. It might pay, however, to have a conversation with them about it. Don’t call them out but, rather, call them in and engage them in a conversation about why society dictates that this sort of garb is appropriate when it isn’t. Instead of getting their guard up, you won’t have ruined their night but might have provoked them to think twice when it comes to next year’s festivities.
These are very sensible times and we should all try our best to be there for each other and find ways to make everyone feel included and safe, even on a very commercialised night as the one of Halloween.