It’s that time of the year again. Halloween. Time to choose which of your favorite characters or celebrities you want to dress up as this year. It is not, however, time to choose which culture you want to adopt, objectify, and desecrate. It’s been a longstanding tradition, it seems, for people to parade around in costumes parodying different cultures of the world.
Which cultures am I talking about? I’m referring to the ethnic traditions of Native American, Indian, Asian, Hispanic, and Arab individuals. Every year around Halloween, people think it’s okay to don costumes in the name of having some fun with their friends. But the cultures being appropriated here are not costumes—they cannot be put on and taken off at will, not without bearing the burden of also facing the regular discrimination and treatment that come with actually belonging to that culture. People are born into their ethnic cultures, and reducing them to “exotic” costumes is offensive and ignorant.
The costumes in question don’t even fairly or accurately represent the cultures they claim to adhere to. Instead, they cater to narrow-minded stereotypes and fail to appreciate the true nature of these cultures. Think I’m being oversensitive? Check out the examples of costumes I found online at Party City and Spirit Halloween’s websites below.
It appears that costumes centered around Native American or American Indian culture are among the most popular transgressions of Halloween. There are many Native American tribes (over 500 in the United States), each with its own distinct language, culture, and traditions. But the costumes tied to Native American culture all prescribe to the same cookie-cutter caricature of tacky faux suede, fringe, colored feathers, and plastic beads. The women’s costumes online have names like “Naughty Navajo,” “Pocahottie,” and “Pow Wow Wow” and make jokes about bead making, dream catchers, and sending men smoke signals.
If this weren’t bad enough, the insult also extends to men, for a bit of equal opportunity racism. The men’s standard “Indian Brave” costume includes the following description “Your job is to hunt. Hunt for prey like food and beer or pretty women in this comfortable costume. Get what you want then lay back and enjoy – pass the peace pipe.” I don’t even know what to think about this. Native American men are being reduced to wholly perverse figures within their society; their only purpose is to be savage hunters of food and women, and smoke a peace pipe in their downtime. When did it become okay for the long and oppressive history, identity, and lineage of Native Americans to be degraded and smeared like the greasy face paint on sale for Halloween?
Next up are the costumes that claim Indian heritage and portrayal. Most of these costumes refer to Bollywood, the Hindi movie industry of India. These outfits are not glamorous or similar to anything I’ve ever seen in a Hindi movie though (and I’ve seen my fair share of them). Instead, they make mockeries of traditional Indian attire in order to grant women the chance to “experience the magic and mystery of exotic India,” according to a particular description on Spirit Halloween’s website.
These costumes, like the “Bollywood Dancer” pictured above fail to recognize the increasingly modern and Western approach currently being taken by most actors and actresses of Bollywood. A side note: the aforementioned costume in particular is said to come complete with “fabric bangles, a crop top, skirt and matching panties.” Why panties? Why does a costume representing Indian women have to include underwear and feature a gaping skirt? This misogynistic perspective is furthered by another costume on the site: “Bolly Ho.” I am actually dumbstruck; I don’t even understand who thought that would be an acceptable title or outfit to portray a hundred-year-old film tradition. But this is the image that is out there, for everyone who is unfamiliar with the genuine Bollywood, this is what they’ll think is okay. And for everyone who is familiar with the genuine Bollywood, you have to sit around and watch people fetishize Indian culture.
These two examples aren’t the only ones out there; there are more instances of costumized cultural appropriation than I’d care to know about. Party City sells a “Geisha Glam” costume—essentially an incredibly revealing handkerchief called a “kimono” for these purposes. To make this outfit even more alluring—did I mention it comes with an umbrella?—the website’s description takes it a step further: “Everyone will remember you in this…costume, even if you don’t write a memoir!” Oh, goody. References to Memoirs of a Geisha and hope for non-Japanese women to emulate a tradition in existence since the eighteenth century. There’s another popular trend among Halloween costumes, and that is the portrayal of the Arab sheikh, an honorific term referring to leaders. Why might people find this an attractive costume option? Well according to a description on Spirit Halloween’s site, the man who wears this outfit gets to “take charge of oil and command whatever price per barrel [he] wish[es]” and can either “go with a harem or go it alone” on Halloween night. This fuels the stereotypes active in society and reflects a distinct sense of ignorance.
The costumed racism and misogyny that comes knocking at your door on Halloween night isn’t any less serious than its manifestations on any other night. Even if someone claims to know and respect the culture that they are mocking in costume because it’s “just Halloween” and it’s “just for fun,” it’s still offensive. Halloween is not the one night a year you get to try on another ethnicity. Don’t fall prey to the caricatured corruption of cultures for sale at the promise of getting to explore the “exotic.” If you still cannot recognize the difference between scary-frightening and scary-ignorant, do us all a favor: hang a sign on the door and don’t pass out any racism this year.
-Sonia Okolie, Slant Editor