The holiday of spooks, ghosts, witches, and candy is near! That’s right, Halloween. And as Halloween approaches, there is a topic that needs to be addressed.
On Halloween, anybody can wear a costume and imagine they are somebody else. This freedom from the restraints of your sense of self can be refreshing. There is no doubt we all need some sort of escape from reality, especially in 2020. But, cultural appropriation is a serious issue. In the age of awareness and respect, we should all be putting more thought and care into our costumes.
Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture." With this idea in mind, let's discuss how this might look on Halloween. Some examples of inappropriate disguises are Day of the Dead Senorita, Indian Native American* Boy, and Sexy Geisha Lady. The issue with these sorts of costumes are not only that they are taken from other cultures, but the inherent misrepresentation, racism, and/or fetishization that is brought with it.
Now, let's take a closer look at these four examples individually.
The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday, where family and friends welcome the souls of their loved ones who have passed away, and honour them in a celebration involving traditional foods, drinks, music, and prayer. The costume Day of the Dead Senorita is similar to La Catrina, a symbol of the celebration. It involves the same general flower crown, calavera, and dress. But, the Day of the Dead is a sacred tradition, and using it as a costume on Halloween sends the wrong message. Instead, opt to learn more about the history, get insight from people who celebrate it, and appreciate it in a more respectful way.
A very common costume likely to cause harm is Indian Native American* boy. While we could all stand to learn a lot about Native American history, these costumes are not the way to go. Native Americans in Canada have been targeted for centuries. They established individual trade systems, beliefs, and societal structures, but were colonized by Europeans under the guise of exploration, and had their culture taken from them as they were forced into residential schooling from childhood. While this part of history is usually taught, it is easily sugar coated, and slid under the rug as soon as the school bell rings. Native Americans continue to have their cultures erased, and wearing headdress for a day does nothing but glamorize oppression and further promote stereotypes surrounding them.
The Sexy Geisha Lady is another great example of a completely disrespectful costume. A Geisha is a Japanese hostess. They are professional women who are trained in various arts. They are usually hired for banquets, parties, and other celebrations, to tend to male guests. This is a highly sexualized position, despite not being part of the sex industry in the least. While a Geisha could make an offer of that sort, it has no link to what the job entitles, and she'd likely face repercussions for that behaviour. Fetishization of East Asian women has been prevalent for a long time, but is entirely inappropriate. The Sexy Geisha Lady costume often shows a very short kimono, bu yao (Chinese hair ornaments), and high heeled shoes. This does not in any way accurately represent the professional and skilled role of a Geisha, and only contributes to the sexualization of not only Geisha, but East Asian women as a whole.
Now that we have some background information on each of these examples of cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes, here is the big question:
Why should we care?
The sentiment is common. When we aren't directly affected by something, there is no motivation to change our actions.
But we should care. We should care about the nitty-gritty of Halloween costumes, because it directly affects others. When we dress up in these costumes, we show the people of those cultures that their identities can somehow be fit into fabric worn only once a year. We are confining people to stereotypes. Not only that, but we are picking and choosing which parts of somebody else's identity we like best, and using it for ourselves without a second thought to all the history behind it. We are wearing their identities, enjoying ourselves, and taking them off, without the realization that our Halloween costume is somebody else's daily reality. Except they can't change out of the oppression that comes with it.
While you pick out your Halloween attire, consider the inherent privilege that comes with wearing somebody's culture as a costume, and being able to take it off at the end of the night.