The Politics Behind Halloween Costumes

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In the midst of the insanity that is post-fall break midterm/quiz/project/final exam season, misery poker and 2AM nights in McCabe have become routine. It’s a stressful time for Swatties, but thankfully we have Halloween to serve as a temporary break from reality. To everyone who has yet to study for exams or finish writing their papers due this week, this one’s for you.

For many people, dressing up is the highlight of Halloween. Costumes are all about becoming something or someone you’re not for a night, but it’s important to take the time to learn about who it is that you’re representing.

This past weekend, many of the RAs and DPAs on campus encouraged discourse on exercising sensitivity when selecting costumes. DPA Ashley Hong ‘17 taped reminders on her residents doors that said “avoid costumes that trivialize the practices, traditions, or trauma of groups of people,” and opened her door to those who wanted to understand more on the topic of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation refers to the borrowing of one aspect of one’s culture by someone of a different culture. This definition can seem fairly innocuous, but it fails to address the power dynamics that lie within cultural appropriation. Often times, members of a dominant group are seen utilizing cultures of groups who have been historically oppressed.

Many students expressed difficulty in identifying what exactly constitutes appropriation. To this point, there are several very obvious signs of ignorance in regards to culturally sensitivity. Recently, President of the University of Louisville James Ramsey was seen sporting a “Mexican” look, dressed in a sombrero and striped poncho. Most would argue that this is indeed a very apparent sign of cultural appropriation. Other costumes, however, may have more nuanced forms of appropriation that aren’t always visible to the average student.

Another problem that arises is intention. It is argued that costumes that may seem to appropriate are actually a celebration of the culture and people they represent. But as we all know, intent and impact are very different things. Although some intentions may be genuine and seek to foster a deeper understanding of other cultures, not everyone will perceive it as such. So much grey area exists between costumes that are truly celebratory and costumes that are westernized signs of privilege.

“I don’t think it’s meant to belittle any cultures,” said Kaleb Forson ‘20 in respect to such costumes. “It’s not meant to disrespect anyone, but I can see how it could come off that way.”

Some say that Halloween isn’t supposed to be taken so seriously – it’s all in good fun and I agree. In terms of deciding whether a costume constitutes “cultural appropriation,” if there is even a small chance that what you wear will negatively impact someone else’s Halloween experience, avoid it. Halloween is supposed to be fun and if we have the opportunity to make someone else’s experience more enjoyable, why shouldn’t we?

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  1. Speaking as a white dude, a good general rule if you are considering dressing up in an “ethnic” costume is to imagine how you’d feel if a black guy in a “white person” costume (consisting of lederhosen, a tartan kilt, an ushanka, and a monocle, while using a thick fake German accent and always talking about how great Paris is) were at your Halloween party, and people complimented him for his accurate portrayal of white people. And then don’t dress up as someone else’s ethnic group, because you WILL get it wrong and you WILL piss people off.

    Stick with a superhero costume, or do a visual pun instead. Or just tape some golden retriever hair to a shriveled orange, inject it with bile to fill it with smelly acid, and glue some baby doll hands to it, then wear it in a harness around your chest and say that you’re a presidential candidate’s campaign manager.

  2. I’m “pro-choice” on this one. Halloween is supposed to be fun, playful, imaginative, and light-hearted. If I chose to go as Mulan or Pocahontas, it would not be because I disrespect people of Asian or Native American descent; it would be because I longed to emulate those characters when I was a little girl, and I’d be play acting. My motivation would be identical to that of my choice to go as Hermione Granger (another character I admired as a child) and would have no more to do with Mulan’s or Pocahontas’s ethnicity than Hermione’s has to do with hers. It would be unctuous and censorious to police my choice of costume, and it would imply knowledge of my motives, my cultural sensitivity, and my political leanings that nobody has a right to assume. There’s something inherently politically incorrect about assuming costumes depicting characters of ethnicity other than one’s own must be shunned. Isn’t our common humanity more important than our ethnicity?

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