chris roebuck

Halloween is all about the costumes. Scary costumes, funny costumes, original costumes, costumes relating to a very detailed, obscure reference that no one but the wearer truly understands. And, sadly, offensive costumes. Racist costumes; costumes that appropriate and stereotype people and their culture in extremely harmful ways.

It is undeniable that white people are afforded a huge amount of privilege in many, if not most, places around the world, the UK included. It’s easy to say that we live in a post-racial society, but there are countless observations, stories and practices that show this to be untrue. One of the privileges that white people have is that of our culture not being appropriated and treated as something lesser, something that can be taken, changed and used at will.

Cultural appropriation is not about appreciating and celebrating other cultures, it’s not about being comfortable and familiar with aspects of other cultures. Cultural appropriation is about a cultural group exposing, using and exploiting the traditions, property, expressions or objects of another cultural group. Most prevalent and most harmful is this happening to a minority group that holds less privilege within a society.

Cultural appropriation occurs every time someone who is not Mexican puts on a poncho and waves maracas in everyone’s face, every time a woman who is not Native American dresses up as a sexy ‘Indian Squaw’, every time that someone dresses up as an Arab by wrapping a towel around their head and putting on a fake beard. This is never more obvious than at Halloween. Dressing up in outfits like these is an illustration of the pervasive racial issues that are still hugely prominent in our society, and serves to perpetuate discrimination and oppression of people of colour.

One of the most problematic issues with these outfits is their stereotypical nature. By removing clothing from its history and context, by assuming that there is one outfit, one signifier that represents an entire culture or ethnicity, the clothing becomes nothing more than a harmful stereotype, reinforcing and worsening people’s views and beliefs about cultures that aren’t their own.

As an example, for only £27.99 you could be the proud owner of a ‘Taliban costume’ from one of the UK’s biggest online costume shops – complete with bomb belt, beard and fake dynamite. In this case, the stereotype is not only reductive, but also extremely harmful. By playing into the Islamophobia that is so widespread in the Western world, outfits like this one correspond to the destructive views that are held about Arabic people, and make it even more difficult for minority ethnic groups to achieve social equality.

In addition to being harmful, stereotypical costumes also have the result of reducing cultures to caricatures – simplified, exaggerated and intentionally humorous images that fail to accurately portray traditions and people as they really are. Want to dress up as a Mexican? Well, all you need is a serape, a sombrero and a bottle of tequila to feel authentic. When we remove objects and clothing from their context, not only do we perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but we also reduce people and cultures to nothing more than something for us to laugh at, to play with for one day a year. 

While for the white people who dress up in the costumes, they are just something that can be laughed at and then taken off after one night, minority groups in the UK and the US have been discriminated against for many years because of their perceived ‘otherness’ – because of the colour of their skin, and because of the way people of their ethnicity are thought to dress. When someone who doesn’t belong to that group wears the costume for Halloween, they are ignoring the privilege that they have and feeding into destructive power dynamics that exist around race in our society.

Many outfits aimed at women are designed to be sexy. Women should never be shamed for wearing whatever clothing they want to, but when sexualised costumes are racially or ethnically based they are feeding into a system that has historically denigrated women of colour. To reduce women of certain ethnicities down to a sexy Halloween outfit is to ignore the disproportionate violence and discrimination they receive. ‘Indian Squaw’ outfits are almost always sexualised. To wear this is to ignore the fact that for Native American women, the rate of sexual assault is twice that of the national average in the USA. Women of colour are more likely to experience violence and sexual abuse than white women. And if their cultures and traditions are constantly sexualised and objectified, if they continue to be considered ‘exotic’ rather than human, this won’t change anytime soon.

It would require a dramatic shift in society’s pervasive racial undercurrents for people to stop exploiting and appropriating ethnicities and cultures for Halloween. It requires that we constantly question and evaluate our beliefs and prejudices. It is important that this practice stops, it is important that we call it out as wrong and racist, and it is equally important that we recognise it as one aspect of the many things that continue to oppress and discriminate against people of colour.