Cultural Appropriation in Halloween Costumes

by Gaby Marraro

Cultural appropriation is never acceptable.

With Halloween quickly approaching, many of us are scrambling to come up with a funny, clever costume that is sure to get some positive attention. And while it’s easy to get sucked into the mindset that all costumes are worn in harmless fun, I’ve recently become much more aware of the cultural appropriation that seems to emerge around this holiday, and I ask that anyone reading this does the same.

I took a trip to Ricky’s the other day, the beauty supply store that turns into a costume shop for Halloween. Among the slew of sexy prisoners and skin-tight cat suits (a whole other problematic aspect of costumes into which I won’t delve now), I was taken aback by the wide variety of culturally specific costumes. Among these were “Mexican Señorita”, a geisha wig, a “Ghetto Fab Wig”, “Native American Princess”, and jewels meant to be worn as bindis. While this is something I wouldn’t have given a second thought a few years ago, I now understand that these costumes aren’t funny, nor are they flattering or respectful in any sense towards the cultures they are appropriating. By dressing up as a person of any race, you are creating a negative stigma towards it in its entirety, and just because it is Halloween, it is not excusable. In all cases, those clothes have a special historical significance for that culture, and to use it as a fashion statement or as a joke is to act upon ignorance. By making a culture “sexy”, you are fetishizing it, mocking its traditions and expressions, and ignoring what it truly means to be a person of that race.
Regardless of whether one claims to wear these outfits without an attitude of racism, the principles behind it and the implications of wearing them encourage exactly that. In short, any costume that is based on a certain race is racist, and there is no getting around that. No one has the right to dress up as a different race for a day, knowing that at the end of the night they will be able to take that costume off and avoid any discrimination that culture faces on a daily basis. When you dress in blackface, you don’t have to face the significantly lower employment rates of black men and women, or the fact that one in three black males will be sent to prison in their lifetime. Dressing up as that sexy Native American woman ignores the fact that one in three of these women will be raped in her lifetime. Wearing a sombrero and moustache as a joke doesn’t force you into the 30% of Hispanics without health coverage. You get to take that costume off and return to your privilege, but for the group you are representing, these challenges are constant and lifelong.

And because there will inevitably be a large presence of these costumes on Friday, I encourage all of you to ask the people wearing them, “I don’t get it. What’s the joke?” because chances are, they won’t have an answer.

Gaby Marraro is a first-year at Barnard and a staff writer for the Nine Ways of Knowing blog.

Image courtesy of


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