Costumes are not Cultural Appropriation

Many Halloween outfits that were once thought to be safe to wear are now offending large groups and opening up an avenue for criticism of the wearer. In the past few years, society’s views on costumes have shifted in a more sensitive and culturally aware direction.  There are more and more people who are quick to call out cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes than ever before. 

But are the costumes themselves really an example of cultural appropriation?

“Costumes aren’t meant to be hurtful, they’re just about having fun,” Says Erik Mandel CEO of the Halloween costume website, Costume SuperCenter, “Yes, some Halloween outfits push the boundaries of social appropriateness but crossing a line is up to the person wearing the costume, not the costume itself.”

As many an essay has started, we can look at this argument by first looking at the definition of the word “costume.” Webster’s defines a costume as “an outfit worn to create the appearance characteristic of a particular period, person, place, or thing.” In Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, author James Young describes it as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.” Webster’s definition sounds a whole lot like the definition of cultural appropriation.

So really, if we’re to look at the issue of costumes from a solely definition-based perspective, the only people who should be allowed to dress in costumes that reflect certain cultures are the people of those cultures, and in that case, the dress would not be, by definition, a costume.  It would merely be clothing.

There certainly are distasteful examples of costumes.  The oft quoted “blackface” is, for example, a poor choice for costume and is obviously offensive.  But the reason it is offensive is because it implies that a person of a certain culture is attempting to appear as though they are an offensively stereotypical black person, when he or she is not.  It’s not funny, and it’s hurtful to a large group of people.  However, is parading around in blackface the same as dressing in garb of another culture or time period?

Short answer: no.

It is widely accepted that blackface is not ok, but what about the case of Sean King, a second-grader from Colorado Springs who came to school for a presentation doing a Martin Luther King impersonation, wearing a black suit, tie, mustache and black face paint. 

“They thought it was inappropriate and it will be disrespectful to black people and I say it’s not,” young Sean said to KRDO.  “I like black people.  It’s just a costume and I don’t want to insult anybody.”

This young man emulated a civil rights leader he admired, and wanted to portray Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. as accurately as possible.  To Sean that included wearing face makeup so his skin would match that of the great man he idolized.  His intention wasn’t to offend but rather to educate.

Had Sean better understood the history of blackface and the discrimination it represents, perhaps he would have chosen to forgo the makeup for his costume.  Ignorance: yes.  Cultural appropriation and racism: no.

This brings up another issue for some people; can white children or adults dress as a person or character of another race that they admire or does it automatically become racist? Is it cultural appropriation or racist to have a white person (without blackface) dress up as Marvel’s Luke Cage or Finn from Star Wars? What about a Barack Obama Halloween mask? The answer is no.  It’s not racist.  The race of the character whether fictional or real isn’t what the costume is about.  Kids don’t wear a Finn costume because he’s black.  Kids wear a Finn costume because he’s awesome! Halloween costumes allow individuals to dress as someone else for the night, freeing them of any preconceived notions and judgment.

Celebrities are often criticized for their choice of Halloween costume.  It seems like an annual tradition to accuse celebs of being offensive.  In 2016, celebrity Hillary Duff and then-boyfriend Jason Walsh were lambasted on the internet for attending the Casamigos Halloween Party dressed as a Native American chief and a sexy Pilgrim.  The costume choice was met with backlash on social media, as Duff and Walsh are white, not Native American.  This is the point where the costume world and ideas around cultural appropriation clash.

Now, were Walsh and Duff adopting or using elements of another culture? Yes.  Were they also attempting to create an appearance of a particular person or thing? Also yes.  So where do we draw the line?

The thing that most arguments revolving around cultural appropriation and costumes lack is context.  As with most things, context is a highly important part of creating an argument.  Taking things out of context is how celebrities and athletes and politicians get placed into situations that were unintended.  So often, selective quote-grabbing will take a sentence that, in context, is harmless, and will turn it into a malicious and hateful statement.

The second thing is intent.  When intent is sent to the wayside, people who meant no harm to others can be seen as monsters.  Those who are not racist and are not hateful can come off as such when intent is ignored.  Now, can you do something racist without intending to be? Certainly.  But in the same sense, you can be mean to a friend or family member without intending to be.  Surely, everyone has offended a loved one without meaning to.  Should we really meet unintended offensive behavior that way? One could argue that putting complex issues like racism and cultural appropriation on such a black-and-white, yes-no scale is unfair.  These issues are leveled and complex, so shouldn’t our interpretation of them be leveled and complex as well?

In the sense of costumes, context and intent are just as important.  For example, if someone were to dress the way Jason Walsh did, and walk onto a Native American reservation and start whooping and hollering and calling themselves “Chief,” then we’d have a problem.   It could (and should) be interpreted that what they were doing is racist and cultural appropriation.  They are, without a doubt, trying to appropriate someone else’s culture as their own.  They’re being intentionally offensive, and the context of their location is very relevant.

But were Hillary Duff and Jason Walsh attempting the same? Did either of them intend to offend anyone? Did either of them attempt to be something they’re not? Whether we like it or not, there is a huge difference between pretending and being.  We pretend as children, and it’s always seen as harmless, but when we pretend as adults, it becomes more than it was once.

There is often criticism when a white person wears the historical outfit of a Native American or a Japanese geisha.  It is claimed by some who call these disguises cultural appropriation, that when you dress up as an Indian, you’re dressing up as a stereotype of an entire continent of people. 

But what about when it’s the other way around? What about when a Native American kid dresses up as a pilgrim, is that ok? Should an Asian child not wear a Viking costume because it implies that those of Norse descent are all blood thirsty rapists and pillagers? Of course not, because these costumes do not imply that all Scandinavians act this way any more than an Indian costume says that all Native Americans are stereotyped by these outfits.  These are just costumes, not statements.

Cultural appropriation is a complex issue, and it should be treated as such.  Costumes though, are not complex.  They’re supposed to be simple and fun, so why are we always so inclined to treat them as complex?

America is a melting pot of cultures and traditions.  This rich mixing of people and ideas is what makes America such a great and unique place.  What is great about Halloween costumes is they take elements of those cultures and brings them into the fold of the mainstream.  This gives us a chance to have a discussion about what is appropriate and what is not.

Yes, we should be guarded about the costumes we choose so as not to be insensitive or offensive, and we should learn about the history of the outfits we wear on Halloween.  That said we should feel free to wear the Halloween costume we choose to wear as long as we wear it appropriately and behave with respect.

Maybe it’s an inability to laugh at ourselves.  Maybe it’s a feeling of insecurity.  No matter what is causing us to believe that costumes are something more than they once were, it has gotten out of hand.  We need to reexamine the context and intent.  The costumes themselves are just clothing.  Those who wear them are the ones who decide whether or not they’re racist.  We should use this Halloween as an opportunity to discuss what is appropriate and what crosses the line.