Their culture is not your Halloween costume

An old friend of mine once asked me if her Halloween costume was offensive. Rather than asking what she would be going as, I simply replied, “If you have to ask, it probably is.”

I’ve used that as a golden rule every Halloween when picking out a costume, both for myself and for those around me. I doubt those who dress up as a vampire pause at their reflection when they pass a mirror and wonder if their glued on fangs and the fake blood dried on the corners of their mouth would deem them uninformed.

I do, however, imagine that those who dress up in Indigenous attire wonder if their so-called costume would make them the next victim of “cancel culture.”

So, why do it in the first place?

I can only think of two main reasons: blissful ignorance or blatant racism.

Before I get called a “snowflake” by the older generation for using the “r” word so hastily, I’d like to preface that I’m a woman of color, and that my life-long experiences regarding the matter makes me more than qualified to speak on it.

The former of the two reasons — blissful ignorance — I’d consider to be less troublesome, though still not a good enough excuse to get a pass. However, I do acknowledge that we’re only human, and that we as a species are notorious for making mistakes. It’s how we learn from them that matters.

Let’s say that old friend of mine was dressing up as Pocahontas, a renown Disney princess who proudly hails from the Powhatan tribal nation, a Native American tribe.

I mention her ethnicity, because dressing up as Pocahontas means dressing up as a Native American, and the costumes for that are far from accurate from how those belonging to the culture actually dress.

Being a Disney princess for Halloween isn’t automatically offensive, but the inaccuracies of the costume regarding the culture it’s aiming to represent is. Most often, the costumes are curated from stereotypes which depict or exploit the culture in a negative way. Hence, offensive.

If I explained that to my blissfully ignorant friend and she changed up Pocahontas’ attire to accurately represent her culture, appreciating it rather than appropriating it, or better yet, decided to go as something else for Halloween, then that’s one thing. She learned from what I taught her and, as a result, changed for the better.

It’s another for that friend of mine to go to Party City, purchase a poorly made get-up called “Adult Western Costume” and dress up as a Native American, calling herself an “Indian” all night long, despite knowing that it could possibly humiliate, hurt, and offend anyone around her that actually belongs to that culture.

Let’s say I pulled that friend aside and informed her that her costume was offensive. I explain by telling her that her costume is devaluing the importance of someone else’s culture, that it’s making a mockery of something that’s considered sacred to someone else, that it’s stealing from a minority group that’s already lost so much, all for the sake of an aesthetic.

If her response is to shrug off everything that I’ve said and continue on with her life under the impression that she shouldn’t care because it doesn’t affect her personally, then that’s blatant racism. 

She would then no longer be my friend. Not only because she’s willfully racist, but because she’s got on a tacky Halloween costume.

If you want to keep your friends and save yourself from being known as the person with bad taste on Halloween, keep in mind the golden rule: If you have to ask whether your costume is offensive or not, it probably is. So, go as something else.

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