Image of a group of kids dressed up for Halloween

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Why cultural appropriation on Halloween isn’t okay

How to avoid this probably unintentional—but very real—type of racism this Halloween

Halloween is just around the corner, and you know what that means. No, not candy hangovers and face-paint stains. (Or, at least, not only those things.) It’s also the time of year when people of colour and Indigenous people have to remind the party-going public that their cultures are not costumes.

I don’t think there’s been a single year since I was a child, literally, that I haven’t spotted at least one problematic costume—and I’m in my 30s. I don’t often see people appropriating my culture (I’m from Trinidad, a Caribbean island that some Canadians aren’t familiar with), but many other cultures seem to be fair game, from generic Rastafarians to “exotic” religious figures—remember the time Heidi Klum threw a Halloween party dressed like the Hindu goddess Kali? Not OK.

Of course, I know these costumes are usually the result of ignorance, not cruelty. But I’d still prefer it if everyone avoided cultural appropriation on Halloween—and the rest of the year, for that matter. Here’s what you should know.

What does cultural appropriation even mean?
Simply put, cultural appropriation means trying on parts of a culture that you don’t belong to. The whole point of Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is to remember and honour relatives who have passed away, so yes, putting on sugar skull makeup counts as cultural appropriation, as do “sexy native,” geisha, Bollywood and “gypsy” costumes. (Also, the word gypsy is a racist slur against Romani people, so please stop saying it.) Blackface, brownface and yellowface—that is, using makeup to change your skin tone to appear black, brown or Asian—are also cultural appropriation.

Why is it a problem?
For starters, it’s disrespectful. Can you imagine how it would feel for someone to decide that the way you mourn your parents would make a fun party outfit? Because that’s exactly what’s happening when you put on a Día de los Muertos–inspired look. Similarly, “sexy native” costumes objectify and degrade Indigenous women and girls, who are already among the most vulnerable members of our society.

What’s more, dressing up like insert-ethnic-group-here reduces traditional clothing, which often has important meaning for members of that community, to an aesthetic. Only, you can take that aesthetic off when the party’s over, which is a type of privilege that actual members of that group just don’t have. In September 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced well-deserved criticism after news broke that, as a 29-year-old teacher at a B.C. private school, he wore brownface to an Arabian Nights–themed costume party. There’s no question that behaviour was racist (Trudeau himself admits this), but it’s important to note that this wasn’t only an individual act of racism. It was evidence of Canada’s systemic racism. At the end of the party, Trudeau could wipe off the face paint and move through the world freely because his real skin colour protects him from being perceived as a potential shoplifter at the mall or a scary terrorist at the airport. That’s not true for black and brown Canadians, who deal with that type of racism every day.

Third, cultural appropriation is mocking and mean, even if you don’t intend it that way. These costumes rely on often harmful stereotypes about how Indigenous people and people of colour look, dress and act; wearing them only perpetuates those ideas. For example, wearing a thobe and a keffiyeh sported by many Muslims and calling it a terrorist costume is very problematic, because it encourages the racist perception that all terrorists are Muslims, and therefore all Muslim people are terrorists. And there’s a direct line between that idea and the rising rates of Islamophobic hate crimes in Canada. (In Ontario, hate crimes against Muslims saw a 207% increase between 2016 and 2017.)

So, what can I wear?
So many things! Get punny—think devilled egg or seal of approval. Or grab a friend and two different coloured t-shirts, print out an “m” for each one and voila: M&Ms. Or take inspiration from pop culture: the characters in Stranger Things would make for an awesome family costume, while Friends is great for a group of, well, friends.

Image of a group of kids trick or treating

Pop culture costumes aren’t always so cut and dried, though, especially if we’re talking about kids and their favourite Disney characters. If your child is white and wants to dress up as Black Panther, that’s OK. Same goes for characters from Moana or Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. After all, as writer Preeti Varathan writes in a 2017 op-ed for Quartz, “when your white child approaches you to dress as Moana, Tiana or even real-life princess (of pop) Beyoncé, she’s idolizing a woman of color—that’s great. It’s a win for slowly toppling white beauty standards and white women as sole emblems of success.” Just remember that you don’t need to change your child’s skin tone, or recreate traditional tattoos or makeup, to get the point across.

You should also consider using this opportunity to have a conversation about the civilizations these characters come from—or, in the case of Black Panther, are based on—with your child. And there are some characters that should be a hard no. For example, the real Pocahontas was actually named Amonute, and she was 11 or 12 when she crossed paths with John Smith. This is not the cross-cultural love story the Disney film tells.

And whatever you do, don’t wear garments or accessories that have deep meaning for a community that you don’t belong to. Don’t wear costumes that are actually just caricatures of different ethnic or cultural groups. And never, ever change your skin tone. Easy, right?

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