Halloween Dress-up: Costume or Culture?

Imagine someone came to a Halloween party dressed as an “African,” wearing tribal print clothes and painting their skin black. They tell you that they wanted to celebrate African culture, but earlier that day another student had called their costume disrespectful and even racist. What would you do?

When this happened to Lauren Clark, General Secretary of AUC’s Black Student Association (BSA), at a Halloween party last year, she saw it as an opportunity to start an earnest discussion about stereotypes and Halloween costumes, “First of all, I’m glad my friend even asked me about this issue,” said Clark. “For me as a person of African descent, costumes like this don’t actually celebrate the culture. It’s a piece that you can put on and take off, but it doesn’t have any authenticity with the culture you want to celebrate.” Costumes like these are not a celebration of culture, Clark noted, but rather a form of “cultural appropriation.”

A sociological term, “cultural appropriation” describes how people adopt things from other cultures, explained Michael Ryan, assistant professor of sociology, “Cultural appropriation is the use of certain cultural elements of one culture by members of another culture. It is typically used to refer to instances when a dominant culture appropriates elements from a minority culture. It is generally viewed as a negative phenomenon as the dominant culture usually lacks the same history, reverence, purpose, or respect that the element is given by the minority culture from which they have adopted it.”

Cultural appropriation has become a highly publicized issue over the past few years, covering topics ranging from sports teams to fashion, Ryan pointed out, “An example of cultural appropriation that might hit home a little more is when non-Arabic speakers get tattoos in Arabic simply because they think it looks cool.”

As Carol Torres, president of the Students’ Association of Latino and Spanish Affairs, noted, these types of cultural appropriation are often mistaken for celebration,  “What makes me really uncomfortable are parties like Cinco de Mayo where people don't really care whether or not their representation of Hispanic culture is accurate or relevant at all. People in these situations just want to have fun, but it’s at the expense of others’ heritage.”

What separates cultural appropriation from cultural celebration is a history of oppression between the two groups involved, says Helen Rizzo, associate professor of sociology, “What makes cultural appropriation different from cultural exchanges or from just enjoying and appreciating aspects of another culture is that cultural appropriation involves a power dynamic in which the dominant group of a society adopts or uses aspects "from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group" to use to use Maisha Z. Johnson’s words.”

Issues of cultural appropriation during Halloween are particularly contentious because of the prevalence of stereotypes in certain costumes, Rizzo explained,  “Cultural appropriation is often based on racial and ethnic stereotypes that oversimplify, or worse, degrade the complex culture of a group. So even when we don't intend it, we may be circulating images and perpetuating stereotypes of certain groups which have very negative and harmful consequences for those individuals who are not part of the dominant group. We need to be mindful of that as we go through our daily lives as well as selecting a Halloween costume.”

On the other hand, Ryan pointed out that for children, Halloween costumes can offer an opportunity to explore new identities, be they based on culture, ethnicity or even gender. “My personal opinion is that children should be allowed to choose whatever Halloween costume they want, within reason. Allowing children to choose their own costumes could arguably be seen as giving them an opportunity to explore other identities. I would make the same argument regarding "gender appropriate" costumes,” explained Ryan. “That said, children should also be made aware of the context and implications of their choices.”

Encouraging the AUC community to think about these issues when picking out their Halloween costumes, James Kegere, president of BSA, underscored the importance of community dialogue in building genuine cultural appreciation: “When we talk about cultural appropriation, we are not talking about something you can’t see. We talk about what we’ve lived, what we’ve seen and what our forefathers and foremothers have seen and hope maybe things will change, so we can appreciate each other well.”