Sobremesa: Costume or culture?

Halloween is known by Americans as a fun, lighthearted day to dress up and spend time with friends and family. But this seemingly innocent tradition can easily cross the line into insensitive cultural appropriation.

It may seem benign to don a sombrero on your head, wear feathers and face paint or dress up as a religious figure. But in actuality, costumes can be incredibly harmful, especially when appropriating others’ cultures or dressing up as controversial societal figures.

Cultural appropriation reduces cultures to oversimplified stereotypes. It allows privileged people to pluck the aspects they find ‘cute’ or ‘funny’ from a culture and weave them into an outfit. By sheer ability to pick and choose when they can don these garments, individuals neglect that these cultural backgrounds make up a permanent identity of entire communities.

It is not only the average costume wearer that appropriates cultures on Halloween; many renowned celebrities have fallen into the trap of wearing thoughtless, distasteful costumes. The impact of these costumes can have an even more drastic trickle-down effect. If those portrayed in the media are unable to empathetically choose their costumes, how can we hold society at large to this standard?

One campaign called “We’re a Culture Not a Costume” from Ohio University’s Students Teaching About Racism in Society promotes awareness of this very issue. The organization uses visual advertisements to transform the way that society thinks about costumes. This campaign is impactful, and should be used as a model for further advocacy. 

In addition to being insensitive to different cultures and ethnicities, some costumes can be inconsiderate toward contentious social issues impacting our world. This year, costumes that stood out as especially inappropriate were those affiliated with law enforcement, including police officers, SWAT Team Members or inmates. Following the recent national advocacy against police brutality, including the murder of unarmed Black individuals, this costume is both insensitive and overtly offensive to those that are impacted by systemic racism on a daily basis.

The prevalence of culturally and socially insensitive costumes speaks to a larger need for education on this topic. American public education is often unilateral; we are taught facts without always learning of their implications and manifestations in modern society. By injecting empathy, critical thinking and cultural sensitivity into education, Americans can avoid falling into the trap of appropriating cultures and romanticizing modern-day social problems when dressing up. 

Some smaller actions to chip away at this deeply embedded issue include calling out individuals for unjust attire. On social media and in person, it is completely valid to kindly make these individuals aware of their wrongdoing. One step that Tufts can take to educate others is to host optional workshops before Halloween each year on the implications of dressing up as people from different cultures or public figures. By doing so, we can learn to stop appropriating cultures and work toward normalizing Halloween as a holiday that does not exploit others’ cultural customs.


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