Cultural Appropriation and Halloween

With Halloween just around the corner, it's a good time for parents, grandparents, and others who care about their kids – and adults, too – to have a look at cultural appropriation.  Last year, USA Today asked, in a bold headline, America's most burning and pertinent question: is it okay for a white kid to dress up as Moana for Halloween?

This issue first surfaced in 2015, when Yale warned students against costumes depicting people from other cultures.  However, in multicultural America, it's actually hard to dress up in ways that don't reflect at least some small portion of our individual heritage.  In my own "for example" case, and going back just one generation, I'm Italian, Irish, British, and even Canadian.  Going back farther, we'd find German, Scottish, and who knows what else.  I am adopted, so I can also lay claim to Eastern European Jewish, American Seminole, and God knows what else.  In this, I'm not alone.

Yet, looking like a middle-aged white guy, I'm sure I'd spark outrage among the self-appointed defenders of cultural appropriation by dressing up as anything but an American of English descent.  Jack the Ripper, anyone?  Oh, wait – that might be offensive to British prostitutes.

This artificial offense now seems to focus not on me, but on my young granddaughter.  She's a die-hard Disney fan who especially loves the stories with "princess" heroines, including a handful of Disney's box-office-smash non-white princesses, such as Moana, Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas.  Yet because of those cultural appropriation snowflakes who melt at the thought that someone, somewhere might be offended by an adorable three-year-old in a Disney-inspired costume, this year, she's dressing up as Princess Leia.  This is apparently a politically "correct" kind of cultural appropriation, since the Star Wars culture is fictional.

That's not all.  One publication went so far as to pre-identify the fifteen most offensive Halloween costumes for 2018.  Of these, the five most absurd are as follows:

  • Sexy Shooter Happy Hour costume might offend Mexicans who like tequila.
  • Rasta costume might offend stoners and Marley-loving Jamaicans.
  • Día de los Beauty, which effectively links our Eurocentric Halloween with the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, might somehow offend Mexicans.
  • Sexy Convict costume might "trivialize the U.S. prison system" – heaven forefend!
  • Gorilla – Seriously, this is supposed to offend people troubled by the killing of Harambe the gorilla in 2016.  I kid you not!

This anti-offense mantra is not just about Halloween; it may have actually begun with attacks on the names of high school, college, and professional sports teams.  Most of those "offensive" mascots relate to American Indians, usually portraying them as fierce, powerful, and admirable warriors, something I – as someone who's part-Seminole, and whose son is one quarter Cherokee – find hard to see as offensive.

Example: The liberal establishment has long pressured the Washington Redskins to abandon their name, deeming it offensive to American Indians.  However, in two credible polls conducted a dozen years apart – surveying more than 500 self-identified Native Americans – a consistent 90 percent have no issue with the name.  Conducting its own poll, the NFL found that 77 percent of all white fans opposed a name change.  Twenty-three percent of those responding, however, chose to be offended on behalf of American Indians, even though fewer than 10 percent of those "victims" were actually offended.

This has even reached down to school teams.  The paternalistic Michigan Civil Rights Department filed a complaint with the Department of Education, claiming that "Native American mascots and nicknames are inherently harmful to Native children."  However, the division did not bother to ask those whom they sought to protect.  In an ESPN interview, Frank Cloutier, a leader in the Mount Pleasant, Michigan-based Chippewa tribe, had a very different view.

If it's not derogatory and it's being used appropriately, with an opportunity to share or cross-share our culture, then it's fine.  There's nothing derogatory about Warriors or Braves.  There's nothing derogatory about "Indian."  I don't believe that a menacing-looking brave on the backboard of a basketball hoop is going to marginalize that child.

He further said there's nothing derogatory about Central Michigan University using the team name "Chippewa."  Apparently, even embracing the tribe's name is not a least to the tribe itself. 

However, many snowflakes say, because of "cultural appropriation," non-Indians – especially but not exclusively whites – should have no voice in the debate over cultural appropriation...unless, of course, they agree.  To this, Cloutier had to restrain his laughter:

Everyone, collectively, can have a voice in this.  If we're going to have this debate and bring it to a positive conclusion, we'd be doing ourselves a disservice by limiting it.

There's no monolithic American Indian support for those snowflakes' politically correct view that any use of an Indian's tribal name or image is cultural appropriation.  However, it's increasingly clear that the victims' own views have little impact on the decision of predominantly white do-gooders who, paternalistically, decide what's best for those so-called victims.

No better example can be found than that of the Eastern Michigan University Hurons.  The Huron River – named for one of the local Indian tribes, who also gave their name to nearby Lake Huron – flows through the city of Ypsilanti, and through the Eastern Michigan University campus.  This watershed is also home to the Michigan branch of the Huron Indian tribe. 

Eastern Michigan University's administration – who deemed the name offensive to tribal Hurons – actually contacted those Hurons for their opinions.  However, when the Hurons asked the school not to change its team's name – they felt Hurons reflected well on their tribal heritage – they were ignored.  The "we know what's good for you" crowd decided to change the school mascot's name to the inoffensive Eagles, the most common name in college sports. 

That's the underlying truth of today's cultural appropriation debates.  Whether it's Halloween costumes or college team mascots, most of those crying foul are not "victims."  Instead, they are members of that arrogant, paternalistic "we know better" crowd who don't really care if their victims feel victimized.

Ned Barnett is the author of 38 published books.  In addition to his own novels and non-fiction books, Barnett works as a writing coach, editor, publisher, and promoter for both books and authors.  He can be reached at, at, or at 702-561-1167.