By Kaitlin Dunn
For the last few years, there has been considerable discussion regarding Halloween costumes — particularly those that utilize offensive humor. Costumes such as culturally insensitive Native American outfits, homophobic costumes, or other stereotypical garb have been the topic of controversy in recent years.
For some, the issue seems easily dismissible. People argue that costumes are only costumes, so there is no harm done. Others claim that censoring outfits defeats the point of Halloween.
However, for many, the issue of offensive Halloween costumes isn’t simply a matter of censorship. Rather, offensive costumes disrespect individuals and groups, and lead to trivialization and mockery.
The phrase “my culture is not a costume” has come out in response to offensive Halloween costumes each year. This argument emphasizes the fact that one’s cultural background or identity is not something for others to wear.
Larger campaigns were created to combat the usage of culturally insensitive costumes. In 2012, Ohio University launched a poster campaign called “We’re a Culture, not a Costume: You think it’s harmless but you’re not the target.”
There are more recent pushes to stop the promotion of culturally insensitive Halloween costumes as well. In a 2020 video for Teen Vogue, people of different ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds came together to discuss how people using and mocking aspects of their background for the sake of Halloween affected them.
“One of the things about Hawaiian culture that not a lot of people know is that historically it was illegal to practice anything that had to do with native Hawaiian culture. My grandmother is currently in her 70s, and she’s finally learning how to dance hula…this costume is extremely hurtful, not only for myself but the generations that had to go through this erasure,” Cashman Aiu said in Teen Vogue.
All arguments for wearing offensive Halloween costumes can be used to argue against them as well. Yes, Halloween is one night a year, but it is simple not to mock cultures for the sake of wearing a costume that you likely will never wear again. For you, it is one night, but for others it’s a hurtful display of disrespect towards them and their cultural background.
Wearing Native American costumes or donning blackface for a costume does not make you look cool or edgy — it shows a lack of regard for others and is a blatant display of ignorance.
The issue with these costumes is not only the way they disrespect and trivialize other cultures, but also the way they contribute to harmful stereotypes.
Dressing up as a “sexy Native American” only further contributes to the sexualization of the Native American people. Your costume choice has effects on the lives of real people.
“These costumes aren’t funny and harmless; cultural appropriation isn’t senseless outrage. It’s a painful, dehumanizing attack on their culture, their history, their very existence,” Teen Vogue writer Jessica Andrews said in the video.
There are so many options to choose from for Halloween. Instead of potentially harming someone, stick with space cowboys and renditions of sexy ghosts this October.