I meant no harm.
At 7, I wanted to dress up like my favorite American Girl doll. I borrowed a costume from a friend and got my mom to braid my hair just like the doll. Nobody seemed to think twice about it. Her name was Kaya. She was a Nez Perce Native American character in a series of books. She was my hero. I wanted to be her.
Nobody batted an eye.
They should have. Though I was 7, with the most innocent of intentions, I was taking part in a systemic issue. The opportunity to teach was missed about how such behavior inflicts damage.
Scan any costume catalog or walk through a Halloween store. It is highly likely to have a a geisha robe, Native American headdress or a poncho-and-sombrero ensemble. These might be deemed creative costumes, or a great gag. Or worse, a celebration of the culture. But they are demeaning stereotypes that disrespect some of the very closely held traditions of other cultures and propagate misguided notions about them.
Halloween is supposed to be about fun and candy and make believe. It should not be a permission slip for disrespect. Especially in this divisive political climate, there will certainly be companies all-too-happy to make costumes that continue culturally insensitive imagery and feed the bigotry of people looking to defame another culture. The responsibility lies on each person to actively choose not to participate. The lowest-selling costumes should be the ones that turn other people’s rich and important culture into a punchline.
Although this problem exists on a very wide spectrum, college campuses have always been problematic. In 2017, five private universities in Maryland faced scrutiny for students all dressed as African Americans in prison. Yale University released a detailed guide for students to decide if their costume was appropriate. James Ramsey, the president of the University of Louisville, came under fire in 2015 for handing out sombreros and fake mustaches to his staff for their Halloween party. Every year, it seems, countless fraternities and sororities host ignorantly themed Halloween parties that encourage these types of costumes.
Society has removed most culturally damaging representations. American movies and TV now are nearly scrubbed of blackface, yellowface and brownface.
Although this is a step in the right direction, America is still far from the finish line.
Yandy, a lingerie store that doubles as a “sexy costume” outlet during the Halloween season, capitalizes strongly on cultural appropriation. This year, their line for women includes costumes titled “Shot Glass Geisha Girl,” “Queen of deNile” and “Native American Mistress,” among others.
The eye-catching costumes are a slap in the face to history, sacrificing what is considered sacred clothing to some for increased sex appeal and cheap polyester materials. These costumes are clearly marketed towards those not of the demographic they mock, using white models and creating wordplay out of the traditional titles.
If you haven’t been directly affected by the belittling of your own culture, it can be difficult to comprehend its impact. Maisha Z. Johnson, a writer who focuses on social change, defines cultural appropriation as someone who takes a “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Halloween costumes that imitate and disgrace traditional symbols are part of this somehow commonly overlooked nightmare that many Americans face all year, but primarily during this season.
I know that at 7, I just wanted to dress like my favorite character. There’s no harm in allowing a child to be their favorite princess or book character or superhero.
However, I know if I were to make the same decision 12 years later, the effects would ripple throughout my community. I have no business pretending to be part of a culture that I don’t belong to, especially over something as trivial as a Halloween costume. Choosing a culturally-based costume doesn’t celebrate a society, rather, it can promote the privilege of the one wearing it, mocking historical oppression.
Some credit hypersensitivity to this issue or claim that American society is becoming too politically correct. But perhaps it’s not a hypersensitivity to other histories but rather a raised awareness. Any heightened sensitivity will feel like too much for those who started with none.
Geishas have a rich history of being artistically knowledgeable, and they commonly acted as the upper class socialites of Japan. Native American headdresses were often worn by war heroes and leaders of the tribe. The poncho and sombrero were worn for basic survival, protecting farmers, soldiers and expeditioneers from the harsh elements.
Choosing to decorate yourself in symbols like these stains their reputation and encourages the ignorance of their meaning. There are plenty of ways to be creative, excite and make people laugh with your Halloween costume this year. The price tag doesn’t need to include the cost of some of the richest histories in the world.