What’s Wrong With That Costume?

With October coming to a close, trick-or-treaters are getting ready to prank their friends, stock up on candy, and raid the costume section at the store. Halloween is an opportunity to dress up as anything—whether it be your favorite movie character, celebrity, or animal. However, the privilege to wear anything you want is not an excuse for cultural appropriation.

costume evaluation

Last year, Spirit Halloween was the target of infuriated protesters who demanded that Native American “Indian” Halloween costumes are not meant to be hung in stores to be bought and sold for a one-night holiday. The costumes in this store featured artificial feathered headbands, war bonnets, and buckskin dresses.

The Sioux were one of the first Native American tribes to establish the tradition of the war bonnet (also called a headdress). This was exclusively worn by warriors and chiefs: important figures in the tribe who earned their feathers through hard work, sacrifice, and dedication. Only the bravest and most influential Native Americans were given the honor to wear the headdress. So when celebrities like Pharrell Williams, Lana Del Rey, and Karlie Kloss strut their stuff in a “stylish headdress,” they dishonor the significance of the war bonnet and turn their backs on the racism and poverty that the Native American tribes have faced as a result of colonialism. These costumes strip the cultural garments of their meaning and also show inaccurate depictions of Native American people.

Similarly, Americans since the 19th century have been using blackface for entertainment and minstrel shows to represent black characters played by white actors. However, blackface perpetuates the harsh and degrading stereotypes of African Americans.

African Americans have carried the burden of oppression for hundreds of years and have very little privilege in America. Privilege plays a role in cultural appropriation when a person with privilege ignorantly oppresses a group with a costume that bastardizes the culture and people of that group (i.e. wearing an offensive costume without fear of the consequences or knowledge of why it causes pain). Caricaturing black culture serves as a reminder of the painful burdens of the past, a time when black people were dehumanized and tortured.

In a society where black Americans are discriminated, targeted, and gunned down solely because of their skin color, it is inappropriate to dress up as a black person for Halloween, using makeup to imitate the color of their skin, wearing wigs that represent dreadlocks or afros, and altering their features to reinforce black stereotypes.

The ability to take off their color at the end of the day is not possible for those who suffer from discriminatory violence and dehumanization for their skin. Putting on the skin color of an oppressed group disregards the history of that group and continues the hatred that could go unfixed without awareness. The issue of cultural appropriation can be avoided with thorough research and open-mindedness that prompts the desire to learn more about cultures and their unique aspects that we may not be aware of.

“Native American Headdress.” Indians.org, indians.org/articles/native-american-headdress.html.

“History of Blackface.” Blackface!, black-face.com/.

“How To: Costume and Theme Selection Guide.”
Kovac, Michael. “Billboard.” Billboard, 28 Oct. 2016.