’Tis the season to get creative with Halloween costumes! However, Halloween is not a free pass to wear racist and offensive costumes. It’s extremely important to know the distinction between what is funny and what is cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the taking of intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expression or artifacts from another person’s culture without their permission. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways.
Cultural appropriation has a huge impact on broader society and is not only prevalent during Halloween season. Cultural exchange and the sharing of ideas, traditions and material items helps diversify the world and is valuable in today’s global society. However, when members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group it is extremely harmful. Cultural exchange lacks the systematic power dynamic that is prevalent in cultural appropriation. Appropriation of other people’s cultures for a night of entertainment and drinking shrinks down the major problems the oppressed group faces. By dressing up this way you are not honouring anyone or celebrating a culture, you’re not being ironic and it’s not a joke. You are essentially creating a cultural stereotype from a position of privilege that from that position you are still able to offend a lot of people.
When you dress up like an Indian princess or a “sexy Eskimo” you’re ignoring the facts of sexual abuse Indigenous and First Nations women face. By dressing up in this way you perpetuate sexuality and submissiveness fetishizing the other and the “exotic” turning them into objects you can pursue at your leisure. The resonance of everything from a geisha to a terrorist stereotype persists long after October 31st. Every time images like this arise they perpetuate the day to day stereotypes that actual humans have to live with.
It is important to learn correct and appropriate cultural terminology with the hope of bridging the gap from narrow-minded stereotypes to appropriate cultural respect and awareness. There are so many great options out there for a Halloween costume that you don’t have to be racist!