My Halloween regret: I used to wear cultures as costumes

Guest post by Christen E. Reighter
Halloween cultural appropriation: My ghost of Halloween past: I used to wear cultures as costumes
Awful costume photos via Amazon (none of whom are the author of this post)

I don’t celebrate holidays much, but I do love Halloween. It’s more rooted in an adoration for all that is autumn, but I do find myself immersed in the imaginative fantasy of it all. Halloween has a unique universality to it that allows adults to enjoy the silly and scandalous fantasy of hiding behind face-paint or fairy-wings.

But Halloween (and costumes/fancy dress in general) is also a time for self-awareness. Adults especially are more capable of understanding — and therefore more responsible for — the consequences of the costumes we choose to wear.

Halloween may be a day permitting mitigated inhibitions, but our ethical responsibilities do not get a day off.

I speak on this point as someone personally guilty of this specific kind of oversight. At one point in my younger adult life, I dressed up for the holiday as a cultural stereotype, and to this day I look back at what should be cute pictures of fun memories, but instead… I cringe at my offensive choice (and rightly so).

I was wrong to appropriate another’s culture (even some exaggerated, fictionalized stereotype of it) for my own entertainment. If I had known then what I understand now, I never would have made that negligent choice.

Unfortunately, I can't take back what was done. I can only acknowledge my ignorance, and I am intentionally working to never make that mistake again. I am fully aware, though, that just because I have may have forgiven it does not mean that I am allowed to forget the impact it could have had on those around me.

Halloween may be a day permitting mitigated inhibitions, but our ethical responsibilities do not get a day off.

Even if I did not personally offend anyone that night, I am still guilty, regardless, of perpetuating a social norm that appropriating cultures to which we do not belong and of whose complexities we do not comprehend is acceptable. I can't take back the times that my ignorance caused personal and societal offenses, but I can own up to them as wrongs I have committed and dedicate myself to continually learning from my mistakes, listening to those around me who have a different perspective, and acting intentionally, always, in a more progressive, more empathetic, and more informed direction. In a world constantly exposing us to international trends, blurring the lines between formerly delineated races, ethnicities, and cultures, I know that it can be difficult to recognize the harm in their well-intentioned exploration of the anthropological diversity all around them.

When it comes to regional fashions, cultural expectations informed by borders or tradition, and the sociological urge to assimilate, an individual who travels or immigrates may find themselves soul-searching a personal journey complicated by their own place in the world.

I have found however that, though there is worth in the pursuit of knowledge, when considering the societal impact and injustices associated with the claiming of one’s right over aspects of another’s ancestry (especially those cultures whose heritages were violently stripped away in colonialist history of dehumanization and forced acculturation), we must concede that at the cost of others’ reclamation of autonomy, our own education without the experiential aspect is sometimes the higher road.

When living a world that revels in the fetishizing of any characteristics deemed “exotic,” perhaps our intentions simply don’t matter.

But my atonement here is not related to the fluidity of fashion or the inevitability of cultural immersion; it is in the stark difference between those sociological concepts and the innocence of our contemporary adult Halloween: a drunken night of frolicking mockery. There is no room for honor in the comical characters worn in masquerade. They are aspects selected from mystique for the purpose of an event or party, not the adoption of traits that comes with regional or cultural fusion. No matter how harmless one might think "borrowing" from a culture or a movement might be, we can't return something used… And the line between used and abused is razor-thin… and, quite honestly, not ours to define.

Unity can only exist within the boundaries of respect. Only through the humbling principles of honoring one another without the impulse to invade space that was never ours can we truly celebrate together in Community.

Keep in mind, issues of cultural appropriation can be complex and indefinite. We’ve also talked a lot about the issue over on Offbeat Bride, too, if you want more discussion on the topic.

This post was previously self-published in part on Huffington Post’s Contributor platform.

Comments on My Halloween regret: I used to wear cultures as costumes

  1. This seems like a good place to ask this question… If it’s not, mods please feel free to remove!

    My husband and I watched The Book of Life last night, which is set in Mexico takes place around Dia de los Muertos celebrations. He suggested I put together a La Muerte costume for Halloween one year ( /wiki/La_Muerte). While I would absolutely love to do this, I’m concerned it’s teetering in to the “cultures as costumes” realm. My family is as white as they come. However, I am a historian, so I feel like I have a fairly good handle on the history of the holiday and what it represents; I’m not interested in it just because the aesthetics are cool. Where is the appropriation-vs-appreciation line when it comes to a fictional character who is based on thousands of years of tradition from a culture that is not mine?? I’m honestly really curious and don’t want to be insensitive.

    • This is a great question. While we can’t necessarily give you a definite answer, these two posts may help you decide what your intent is with wearing the costume.

      Here’s an excerpt:

      When it comes to using a cultural element that isn’t yours, but has also become a large part of your own identity through research and respectful admiration, it has always felt to us that it can be used respectfully in your own traditions, with caution. In this case it almost becomes an exchange of traditions instead of a theft. We tend to believe that the exploration of other cultures does not have to mean the exploitation of other cultures.

      Is there still a risk that someone could take offense or see your choice as a flippant use of something you may not understand? Absolutely. There’s always a risk. I think that since you’ll be addressing it in your program/ceremony/etc., that you’ll likely avoid these issues.

      TLDR: when in doubt, don’t do it. But in this case, your sincere acknowledgment of the origins and your connection to it should be fine.

    • I’m commenting as another white woman (and one from the UK), so take this as it comes, but when it comes to something like Dia de las Muertas the average person in the street isn’t going to be able to tell the difference between your historically researched and lovingly crafted representation of a fictional character, and blind appropriation by someone who thinks sugar skulls are super pretty and how cool is my giant sombrero? If you’re going to end up in a scenario where you’re justifying to strangers why it’s okay for you to wear the costume, it’s probably not okay to wear the costume.

      • I’m in agreement here. I have a handful of friends who are Mexican and two in particular who felt Dia de las Muertas really deeply this year, as they both have lost immediate family members (one a mother, the other a sister). This year has been really difficult for them, even as it is celebratory.

        I don’t see how wearing this costume, however researched and however intended, is honorary to those who are in mourning and celebration of lost loved ones.

  2. Sometimes it’s not the costume, but the context.

    (I’m Italian-American, so let’s use Italian culture for this example.)

    An Asian social studies teacher dressed in Italian garb as part of her classroom unit on Italy and its culture is fine by me. An African dude in traditional Italian garb participating in a giglio dance at the local Italian feast – also OK. I take the interest and time/effort they invested into researching my culture as a huge compliment, even if they don’t quite nail it 100%.

    For some reason, that same costume is less complimentary if they’re in a bar, sitting between a stripper-dalek and a guy dressed like a hemorrhoid. (If they’re just looking to get drunk, laid, or both, that just makes it worse, somehow.)

    But by the same token, I wouldn’t feel so put off if they were wearing that researched costume while chaperoning kids as they trick-or-treat. Weird, huh?

    Of course, a lot depends on the costume.

    If your idea of “Italian” begins and ends with Don Corleone or Snooki, then please go as the stripper-dalek or the hemorrhoid instead. I mean it. Stop at Merely Offensive. Do not proceed to Unnecessarily Insulting.

    Protip: Trying to out-Ethnic the Ethnics at their Ethnic Function is rarely a good idea, regardless of the Ethnicity. Participate if invited, but let them take the lead; they may be aware of subtleties you would have no way of knowing about. If despite that, you absolutely *must* get your (adopted) Ethnic on, use a very light, subtle hand and understate it.

    To paraphrase some comments over at Offbeat Bride, you don’t have to worship at the altar of a culture – just don’t be a jerk.


    • Here’s what I’ve been wondering, and your comment leads into it well: Is it any more OK to dress as a specific person or character, rather than a generic category, even if the end result is similar? e.g. Pocahontas, rather than a stereotypical “American Indian Girl”, or actually specifically dressing as the widely known pop-culture-icon Snooki, not “Random Italian Person”? Obviously certain things like blackface are still highly offensive- I’m talking outfit emulation specifically.

      • Your costume says something about you…and nonverbal communication is imprecise.

        My response if you dress as Don Corleone at a Halloween party:

        “Cool. The Godfather was a great movie! Saw it three times!”

        My response if you dress as Don Corleone at an Italian festival:

        “That’s all ‘Italian’ means to you? The Mafia? Are you serious?”

        Your costume says, “This is what I think (concept) means.”

        And if your “Pocahontas” isn’t distinguishable from “Native American Girl” then you’re talking about a group, whether you mean to or not. Differences that make no difference…

        This is why culture and religion costumes can be problematic.

        You think you’re saying, ” Go Native American Culture!” while the Native American guy over there hears, “Guess who thinks life on the Res is like a Disney movie!”

        Can you dress as a member of another culture without being insulting? Probably not if your costume comes from Amazon or a temporary costume shop that disappears on Nov. 1.

        Even if you make it yourself or source it from legit sources, is it ever OK to cross-culture it? It might be, under certain circumstances, but there are way too many variables to provide a rule of thumb. Culture of wearer. Culture of costume. Relationship between the cultures. Costuming skill. In-costume behavior. The venue. The people attending.

        Is it OK for a blonde, blue eyed, Swedish gal who lived immersively in Japan for a decade to go as a Japanese gal? What if she just went there on vacation and bought a kimono? What if she never went there but married into a non assimilated Japanese family? Or is a degreed scholar of Japanese culture? What if all she knows about Japan was from bad anime and worse manga? Or she’s just a Japanese culture buff and has read and viewed a lot of non fiction about Japan? Do Japan and Sweden get along? What if one country subjugated the other?

        I’m not gonna try to untangle all that.

        Yes, there will always be insensitive twats who would think it’s OK to dress as Aunt Jemima. Likewise, there will always be hypersensitive twats who find a five year old in a Yoda costume deeply offensive to their devout Jedi beliefs.

        How about we all agree to not be twats – insensitive, hypersensitive, or otherwise? Don’t go as Hitler. Don’t make some little kid feel bad because his robot costume reminds you of a bad dream you had when you were in kindergarten during the Kennedy administration.

        Be creative. Be smart. Be kind. But also, be reasonable.

Join the Conversation