Costumes and Cultural Appropriation

What’s the big deal with being culturally sensitive at Halloween? For years, people have donned sombreros, headdresses, and tribal getup. Why not? Regardless of Halloween hi-jinks, the world kept spinning in November. However, wearing culturally insensitive costumes reinforces ideologies that as a community, especially here at Dickinson, we are working to correct. No matter how special and sparkly one’s Halloween decorations are, October 31 does not exist in its own universe, devoid of cultural and historical contexts.

Let’s walk through an example of why donning a costume that embodies damaging stereotypes about a culture isn’t the wisest choice. Take your pick: Pretend on Halloween night you choose to wear any one of the following costumes. If none of these match your style, search ‘Native’ on the Party City website—there are a lot of awful options to choose between.









On the surface, these costumes might not seem culturally insensitive. They don’t make fun of the cultures they’re representing. We could even argue that we’re actually appreciating their culture by dressing up like them. However, we need to take in the past and present contexts of these cultures to understand why this imitation is anything but flattery.

Let’s begin by asking ourselves why being a Native American is considered a romanticized ideal, worthy of a costume on the night of make believe. We don’t dress up like white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. WASPs are everywhere; that’s no fun to imitate! We dress up like Native Americans because their culture is seen as exotic. And why are there so few Native Americans? Because the American government executed a mass genocide of Native Americans. When European explorers stumbled upon what is now the USA, there were more than 10 million Native Americans. By 1900, there were fewer than 300,000. The elimination of Native peoples, and thus the allure of a Native American costume, is the product of decades of disease, displacement, and slaughter. When we wear that headdress, that’s the legacy we are representing.

Let’s say we wear those costumes for a couple of hours on Halloween. On November 1, we’ll wake up in our comfy dorms with a bachelor’s degree on the horizon. Meanwhile, 25% of Native Americans will wake up in poverty. Native women will wake up on November 1 with the knowledge that “94 percent of Native American women say they have been raped or coerced into sex.” While we start our days with 3 all-you-can-eat meals to look forward to at the Caf,  “Native American families are 400 percent more likely than other U.S. households to report not having enough to eat” (source). It is demeaning to make light of those who have been systematically persecuted. They can’t ‘take off’ their identities at the end of the night. To don their costume for a night but ignore both their communities’ struggles and strengths for the other 364 days of the year is irresponsible. Wearing a costume is not celebrating culture; it is expressing that we only care about a culture when it’s fun and easy for us.

We can rinse, wash, and repeat this process for any number of costumes that make light of marginalized cultures. Wearing an “Adult Sombrero Fiesta Costume” in the name of celebrating Mexican culture is not okay when families are being separated at the border. Wearing an “Old School Tight Afro Wig” makes a joke of centuries of American racism. Propagating stereotypes leads to the dehumanization of marginalized communities. When we wear costumes that make light of minority cultures, people, and histories, we are contributing to their erasure and oppression.

In the grand scheme of things, spending thirty bucks at Spirit Halloween might not feel like you’re harming a marginalized community or its members. Consider, however, what type of person you want to be for the rest of the year once you take that costume off. Ask yourself: would you really want your Halloween look to be saying, “Hey, I know my people killed your people, erased your culture, and continue to participate in your oppression, but, I like this outfit!” As a community, Dickinson is better than that. As a person, so are you.

Try following this flowchart to make sure that your costume could not be construed as culturally insensitive:

Are you interested in learning more about why specific costumes are considered culturally insensitive? Check out the links below:

Written by Alette Kligman ’20, WGRC student worker