Halloween incites cultural appropriation issues


In the weeks leading up to Halloween, colleges and universities around the U.S. have issued statements warning students to steer clear of harmful and offensive costumes, opening up broader dialogue about cultural appropriation on campus.

Lola Amador ’22 believes impersonating other cultures with “sexy” costumes has direct, violent consequences on those communities. “If you are dressed as a ‘sexy Native American,’ you are contributing to the hyper-sexualization of Native women, which leads to them being sexually assaulted at much higher rates,” she said. According to the Indian Law Resource Center, more than one in two Native American women experience sexual violence in their life.

Cultural appropriation can also be seen as “generalizing another culture” — in other words, grouping everyone from that culture into a single category that changes the way people perceive them. Ayu Suryawan ’22 noted that cultures that are being generalized could be more susceptible to negatively stereotyped images in the American imagination.

Suryawan, a Balinese student, has witnessed people who are not from Bali dressed in Balinese traditional Hindu temple clothes. “It made me quite a bit uncomfortable seeing people dressed that way when they don’t practice the religion or belong to my culture,” she expressed. “I think sometimes people view other cultures for entertainment, and I also think people genuinely don’t think [cultural appropriation is] wrong, which is terrible in a different way.”

Having a half-Nicaraguan father, Amador often feels like her culture is being mocked on Halloween. “The ‘Hispanic man’ and ‘calaveras’ costumes are incredibly offensive to me,” she said. “When I see someone wearing those, I just think about the rich culture and history that these two things have cultivated. Wearing those [traditional garments] during Halloween almost makes it seem like people are boiling my culture down into nothing.”

Khadija El Karfi ’19, a senior from Morocco, said that she finds it incredibly disappointing and disturbing when non-Arabs dress up as sheikhs on Halloween. “Where I come from, being a sheikh is not a costume but a cultural and traditional dress,” she stated. “The question I ask myself is: of all the costumes in the world, why choose an outfit that is worn by millions every day as a celebration of their identity, culture and tradition?”

Educating students about cultural appropriation often relies on norms set by their peers. A resident assistant (RA) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who requested to remain anonymous due to UMass policies, said RAs and other dorm leaders are in charge of discouraging insensitive costumes. “Each year around Halloween, we are given a floor meeting agenda and bulletin board guidelines that touch on cultural appropriation,” she said.

The RA acknowledged that UMass has made efforts to educate students on cultural appropriation, but is disappointed in the University’s lack of procedure when disciplining students whose costumes are offensive. “Over the three years of having to talk to residents about this, I have never been told by resident directors what I am supposed to do if I see someone wear an offensive costume,” she said. “I am getting the impression that the school puts out this information to say it cares, but does not really have a process set in place for when someone crosses the line.”

Jay Eveson ’20 believes that individuals who appropriate cultures during Halloween should consider the unintended consequences their outfit might have before stepping into a Halloween costume. “Respecting someone else’s culture means learning more about the history, customs, language, religion and art of that culture or identity,” they said. “Respect does not include dressing up as a mockery of another culture or identity.”