At PLU, everyone knows that social justice is an important part of being a member of the PLU community. As a Lute it’s important to honor that by acting in a way that respects the diversity on campus. In this way, Halloween is especially tricky. Often people take the holiday as an excuse to dress up as whatever they want, even if they’re being culturally appropriative. A Halloween costume turns into cultural appropriation when a person adopts elements of a culture different from their own. A particularly difficult part of explaining cultural appropriation is that many people don’t see an issue with borrowing trends or styles from other cultures; they think that portraying a person from another culture is harmless. But the way that people dress up as people from other cultures is often stereotypical. Costumes can also decontextualize things that are meaningful to a group of people.
For example, Native American headdresses, or war bonnets, were most often worn into battle or for other ceremonial occasions. But as people have been starting to wear them more and more often during Halloween and to music festivals, some people don’t associate head dresses with their ceremonial origins anymore, and just see them as accessories. Typing Native American headdress into Google inevitably comes up with pictures of white people at Coachella. This is what cultural appropriation can do to important cultural traditions, and it’s why Lutes have to avoid it this Halloween season.
Just in case it’s still a little difficult to tell what’s appropriation and what’s not, here are some things to avoid:
1. Don’t darken skin color (ie. blackface). Race is not a costume. Even if you are dressing up as someone from a different race, it is possible to do that without incorporating race into the getup. Try and copy a famous outfit that person wore to a recognizable event that’s easily. If you want to go as Nicki Minaj try a pink wig and a dress that looks like her outfit at the Video Music Awards in 2011 everyone will know who you are.
2. Don’t copy specific hairstyles, like cornrows or dreadlocks. These are ways that black women style their hair, which they’re often ostracized for, yet when they’re appropriated by white women they’re often see as trendy. An example of this is when Zendaya got called out on wearing dreadlocks on the red carpet, while Miley Cyrus appropriated that hair style at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, and got away with it without incident.
3. Don’t dress up as generic depictions of other cultural groups. These costumes inevitably spread stereotypes about those groups of people. It’s not okay to just put on a sombrero, or a headdress, or a headscarf and call it a costume. These are actual people who exist in the world and to stereotype who they are as people is demeaning and further narrows the scope of how they’re seen by other people.
These are just a few among many tips to stay respectful this Halloween season. However, possibly the most valuable one is that being unsure whether or not something is appropriative is a good indication that it shouldn’t be done. Rather than taking the chance on it, play it safe.
Remember that culturally appropriative costumes have real implications for the people whose cultures are appropriated. Even when someone doesn’t mean any harm through a culturally appropriative costume, the fact is that it doesn’t matter.
Good intentions don’t change the effect. Negative stereotypes don’t decide to spread themselves on a case by case basis; it happens whether people want it to or not. A good way to steer clear of this is to dress up as something completely harmless. There are plenty of perfectly good costumes out there that don’t have anything to do with cultural appropriation at all. Rather than going as sexy Pocahontas, try a cat instead.