OPINION: Avoiding appropriation during the spooky season

A spotlight is put on a character wearing a mask with "X" eyes. Another character looks down solemnly.
(Seohyeon Lee • The Student Life)

Witches, ghosts, vampires, fairies and people in all sorts of costumes wandering the streets and searching for candy and Halloween festivities is a common Halloween scene, but not all Halloween costumes are created equally. Some Halloween costumes are funnier, some more serious, some scarier than others and some are more offensive.

The significance of the Halloween season — and the costumes that come with it — can be accompanied with dangerous forms of appropriation. Costumes such as Hula dancers, Indigenous peoples’ attire or, really, anything representing an aspect of someone’s identity or a stereotype are extremely harmful.

Such “costumes” perpetuate dangerous stereotypes of a culture or group and can make those who identify with the identity portrayed feel unsafe. This type of harm, known as cultural appropriation, is the inappropriate adoption of the culture of another group of people different from your own. This adoption typically targets marginalized or non-dominant groups. 

In summary, cultural appropriation is the representation of harmful stereotypes of a specific ethnicity. It carries the implication of exploitation and cultural dominance as it represents another person’s identity as a costume.

The solution to avoiding this behavior seems simple when it comes to Halloween costumes: Don’t wear as a costume a custom or tradition different from your own. Defining this line can be difficult for some, though, as people have argued that everything is culture. Is Halloween, thus, a perpetual appropriation? 

This question reminds me of the foundational American significance of Halloween. The holiday originated from a Celtic festival in which people would dress in costumes to scare off ghosts that entered the living world. However, this concept of dressing up to scare off ghosts changed into a day of dressing up for the sake of wearing a costume. While this is a foundational issue with the holiday, I don’t think that means every Halloween costume is inherently cultural appropriation — dressing up as the “Stranger Things” kids, or a number of other things, is just fine. 

It is also important to note that cultural appropriation is not something that only pertains to Halloween. It is a constant that can occur at any time based on the attire someone chooses. A growing cultural awareness of this is seen in how people are becoming more aware of the harm they are causing, as the term “cultural appropriation” has expanded beyond the world of academia and into the ever-polarizing internet — thus causing much debate and conversation on the topic. 

Beyond Halloween, event themes have been a significant promoter of appropriation in many ways. Examples of these inappropriate party themes are everywhere, but many arise in college. As fraternities and sororities across the United States have reported racist, sexist and homophobic themes, colleges are trying to crack down on the offensive parties. 

For example, a fraternity at Arizona State University threw a party allegedly called the “MLK Black Party” in 2014. The party was followed by a series of social media photos of white students posing with gang signs, basketball jerseys and watermelon cups — racist stereotypes that led to the suspension of the fraternity. 

The suspension of the fraternity demonstrates the beginning of an awareness that spread beyond event themes. People are being called out for their questionable attire that lacks the sensitivity it requires, and Halloween is a time to practice this awareness even more.

Reflection is a massive aspect of choosing a proper costume, as is contemplating the appropriateness of dressing up as others. Dressing up as Disney princesses like Moana or Jasmine, a character from “Squid Game” or any person that represents a different ethnicity, race, gender or sexuality other than your own can be harmful. 

Choosing costumes like these takes the fun-spirited idea of dressing up too far. With the use of blackface, voice changes or stereotypes of a person and their identity, a costume becomes immediately threatening. This “commitment” to the costume is dangerous, offensive and never okay, as it promotes hate towards a person based on their identity. These actions are examples of racism, sexism and homophobia.

I’m not saying that dressing up as someone with an identity different from your own is wrong, but there is a sensitivity that needs to be noted. Being aware is the best first step to take. From there, making more specific distinctions is necessary. Once you start recognizing all of the forms of appropriation, however, the do’s and don’ts become apparent.

Blackface or any type of skin color disfiguration is a definite no. A cat, sure! A geisha woman, nope. Batman or any Marvel character, go for it! A prisoner of war, 100 percent no. Ghosts, why not! Any transphobic costume, definitely not. A box of mac and cheese, very creative! Any traditional clothing that represents aspects of a specific culture, no. A Minion — only tastefully. 

This list could go on and on, but by asking yourself essential questions about the meaning, purpose and reason behind a costume, you can become more conscientious of your Halloween outfit’s impact. If the answer is that your attire will offend someone, finding something else is best. 

Jada Shavers SC ’26 is from Portland, Oregon, and she is studying writing, rhetoric and anthropology with the goal of becoming a journalist. She loves camping, listening to music, and drawing with her younger sisters.

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