Appreciation Vs. Appropriation: How to Stay Respectful This Halloween

Halloween is approaching, and due to the Coronavirus it will likely look and feel different this year. Nonetheless there is still fun to be had on this occasion. However you choose to celebrate, ensure you do so responsibly, prioritizing safety and ensuring you are respectful. One of the key aspects of Halloween requires a conscious conception of appropriate costumes. Hopefully this blog post can help you effortlessly refrain from crossing the line between appropriate and appropriation. Avoiding the pitfalls of reducing cultural attire to a costume.


Cultural appropriation is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.” The inappropriate adoption of ethnic aesthetics by people of other social/racial groups is a far too common an occurrence on Halloween. For example, many people have dressed as Native Americans (see photo below), Japanese Geishas, and Egyptian Pharaohs, among other cultural identities. Even if you do not mean to be offensive, or if you admire the aesthetic and customs of a given culture, someone else’s culture is not your costume. 


Using traditional cultural clothing is problematic for a number of reasons. These kinds of costumes often perpetuate and amplify stereotypes, sometimes in extremely offensive ways. One would have to be part of a given culture to truly understand and relate to the significance of certain elements of a culture; to dress in a manner that appropriates another culture runs the risk of disrespecting aspects of people’s identity. 


There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. We can show appreciation for individuals of a certain group rather than reducing the entire group into a stereotypical image that does not accurately depict the essence of individuals in the group. Instead of dressing as a type of person, dress as an actual person. For example, rather than dressing as a ‘rapper’ for Halloween - which would involve making generalizations that do not necessarily reflect the individuality and breadth of appearances of rappers - it would be better to go as a specific rapper that you admire. In highschool I went as Schoolboy Q (an LA-based rapper) one year, paying homage to his style rather than satirizing him or making generalizations about rappers. In this scenario, it is important to be careful and avoid perpetuating stereotypes of physical attributes/features (avoiding blackface for example).

We must see the humanity in everyone, and recognize individuals’ uniqueness. No two people are the same, but certain costumes perpetuate stereotypes and prejudiced notions that can be inaccurate or harmful. Even if someone in a given social group does dress/act in a certain manner, is it fair to reduce their identity into something as one-dimensional as a costume? Similarly, it is not right to dress in a manner that makes light of someone’s lived experiences. I remember in elementary school I had friends that would often dress as “inmates” on Halloween, and at the time I thought their costumes were cool - orange (or black/white striped) jumpsuits, handcuffs and the whole deal - but as I matured and am now able to consciously reflect, these were poor choices. Imagine if a fellow student had a family member who experienced trauma related to prison for instance, how would they feel?


Halloween has the potential of being a fun day every year, with the opportunity to dress up and be creative. There are seemingly endless possibilities for costumes, so why choose one that can cause harm to others?