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When Halloween costumes become cultural appropriation

By Janet Chen

Come Halloween, you’re bound to witness the prevalence of cultural appropriation manifest in costume ideas. Most often, I see people dress in Native American “costumes” with moccasins, feather headdresses and fringed dresses. The main issues that lie in cultural appropriation are that it perpetuates the hyper-racialization of people of color, and uses cultural garments without deep knowledge of the historical relevance they carry. Additionally, many people who partake in cultural appropriation have historically been involved in the subjugation of people of color.

Before I delve into the issue of cultural appropriation, let me point out that it is okay if you have unknowingly partaken in cultural appropriative practices in the past. Not everyone is aware of the institutionalized harm that practices like cultural appropriation imparts on people of color. However, the fact that this remains a narrowly understood concept certainly reaffirms the importance that we shed light on this topic and prevent others from participating in cultural insensitivity.

The harm that cultural appropriation causes is rooted in the histories of forced assimilation of people of color upon European immigration or white “contact” with this country. The Dawes Act of 1887 was implemented with the purpose of cultural erasure of Native Americans, which included a provision which mandated that they wear “civilized Western clothing.”

People unrightfully call the discouragement of cultural appropriation a violation of people’s agency over their own bodies. If this is a violation of one’s agency, then how can we even begin to describe the effect of the Dawes Act and countless other systemic, assimilative forces?

Cultural appropriation mitigates the effects of a painful and unjust history, especially when white people claim cultural garments as “trendy accessories.” It involves a deeper history of cultural castigation that has transitioned to the fetishization of “Eastern” culture. For example, people wear chopsticks with misguided purpose–transforming a traditional eating utensil with origins in Asia to a hair accessory.

Ethnic impersonation is a form of racism; though white people who dress as a Native Americans for Halloween can take off the costume at the end of the day and return back to the comfortable domain of racial privilege, people of Native American descent live with this hyperracialized stigma for life. Cultural appropriation reduces people of color to figments of racial stereotypes.

Halloween in particular highlights this problematic practice, with costumes like Native Americans and geishas to name a few, but this issue is certainly not confined to this holiday. Bindi dots, henna tattoos, and kimonos are only a few examples of cultural “accessories” worn too often by people who are unaware of their cultural significance.

However, Halloween underscores these harmful trends and though we have gained great racial progress, this practice serves as a reminder that we still have a long ways to go before achieving racial justice.

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