Today is Halloween and, don’t get me wrong, I love it. I think fancy dress can be fun and hilarious and clever and a source of joy for a great deal of people – and, generally speaking, anything that makes a bunch of people quite happy is something I’m a big fan of, too.
What I’m not a big fan of, though, is cultural appropriation, and on no other night is it as common as it is on Halloween. Like a Union President’s ascent into politics, the sombreros, Native American headdresses, blackface, and bindis are painfully predictable and easy to see coming as we look ahead to tonight’s festivities. Earlier this month the online retailer, ASOS, came under heavy criticism for labelling a range of bindis as Halloween items. Most people who don Native American headdresses, “Sexy Geisha” costumes, or “Islamic Terrorist” costumes tonight don’t actively mean to offend anyone – they probably just think it’s a bit of a laugh or a great look that would make a good picture.
Unfortunately, however, the ways in which we choose to represent ourselves often take on meanings we didn’t even consider when they are seen by others, and this is particularly true at Halloween. The issue is not if you belong to a culture and wish to express your cultural identity through clothing; the issue is when people take on costumed stereotypes of cultures that do not belong to them. If you are not a member of a community, particularly a marginalised or historically oppressed one, it is not okay to pretend you are for one night, only to return to your regular life in the morning.
Every culture has some really interesting clothes or concepts, of course – but you can appreciate them without needing to put them on your body. Cultural ways of presenting oneself such as bindis and headdresses look great, because that’s what they’re meant to do. They are important cultural signifiers that exist as part of important cultural rituals. They do not exist, and they never should exist, to be worn by someone who does not belong to that culture as part of a costume on Halloween. Clothing, make up, and other physical cultural signifiers are not costume playthings: they have significant meaning behind them on every day of the year, and not just on October 31st.
The issue of cultural appropriation is a very tricky one for a lot of people, and rightly so, particularly when you consider the fact that some of the groups that are most often victims of cultural appropriation were historically victims of much more serious crimes perpetrated by white people.
It easy to think that your Indian Halloween costume, for example, is fine so long as your Indian friend says that they aren’t offended. But that’s the thing: feelings are subjective and not every member of a certain community, ethnicity, or cultural identity feels the same way about their cultural identity, and who can or cannot partake in or reference it. Just because one person of Native American descent, for example, isn’t offended by a white person donning a headdress doesn’t make it okay.
Yet while each person’s feelings about cultural identity are different and subjective, a history of oppression is not subjective. A society in which racism is institutionalised is not subjective. And these are the kinds of things that we really need to talk about when we discuss cultural appropriation.