Culture not costume

Dress-up do’s and dont’s for Halloween

By Fawn Logan-Young

Cultural appropriation. You may have heard the term before, but have you thought about your own complacency? In our homes, it is easy for some to maneuver around social politics. However, there is one time of year during which we should all be hyper-aware of cultural appropriation: Halloween.

In brief, cultural appropriation is largely about power dynamics. Formally, it is often interpreted as a dominant culture taking identity characteristics and other portions of another culture as its own. Often, these characteristics are capitalized and commodified without crediting their origins. Sometimes it may even be used to dehumanize or ostracize such groups. 

Here is an example—the use of “blackface.” That’s when someone who is not Black, paints their face darker to depict a Black person or in some cases, a person of colour. Historically, blackface has been used to demean and dehumanize those of African heritage throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s in North America. The use of blackface decades ago still has real world consequences to Black populations today because degrading and humiliating stereotypes of such communities still linger. It can be found within our popular culture like movies and TV shows. It can also be found in our own personal biases, regardless of how much work we may do to rewire our thinking towards others. 

So, why is cultural appropriation so important to have on our minds this Halloween? Because Halloween costumes too often embody the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. In my experience growing up in the ’90s, it was not uncommon to see people dressing up as geishas and wearing traditional headdresses, such as those associated with Indigenous Chiefs. If we refer to my example of blackface, you may see that what may be interpreted as a harmless gesture to some has real-life negative consequences to those who are being performed. 

Getty Images / kanyakits

As a Black woman, I have perpetrated cultural appropriation during Halloween. I decided I would dress up as Aunt Jemima, the “mascot” of pancakes and table syrup. From afar, it seemed harmless; a Black woman, dressing up as another Black woman. Nevertheless, this costume is problematic. The story of Aunt Jemima could be an article in and of itself, but to provide some brief context here, she has often been a symbol of the myth that Black servants and slaves were content, meek, and ready to please. In reality, she was an emancipated slave who did not live the joyous existence marketed on the bottle of her syrup and in associated advertisements. The act of dressing up as Aunt Jemima further perpetuated negative social constructs that have often hidden the dark realities that Black people in North America have faced regarding systemic oppression and slavery. 

If you are reflecting on your own Halloween experiences and realize you may have been performing acts of cultural appropriation, don’t panic. What should bring you concern, however, is not taking the time to figure out how you can prevent this performance in the future and how you can educate your family on performativity. 

This idea may be new to you. So, know that social science is complicated. There are always exceptions to the rules and sometimes there is no right or wrong answer. Nevertheless, as humans, we can understand ultimately that we all want respect from one another. From my perspective, this respect would encompass heightening our compassion, knowledge and understanding of one another. As a rule of thumb this Halloween, when picking family costumes, refrain from dressing up as other cultures and characters that disadvantage the group or individual in thought. Take the time this Halloween to think about the symbolism behind certain costumes and have these discussions with your children. It is the thought and your actions that count.

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