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Halloween is a fun holiday complete with themed parties, sharing candy and dressing up in costumes. But Halloween is also the time where people try to be clever with their costumes which often come at the cost of offending minority groups. Making fun of other cultures by dressing up as a member of that culture in a way that is both exaggerated and humorous will easily and rightly come across as cultural appropriation. Halloween seems to be the most visible holiday in which people find that it’s completely appropriate to mess around with cultural icons, symbols and even skin tones that are not their own. 

Minority groups already have to deal with severe discrimination, exploitation and hostility on a regular basis. So, when Halloween comes around, it ends up being a slap in the face to see people making fun of their culture through the perpetuation of false stereotypes.

The quick rebuttal to “that’s offensive” is typically met with “it’s just a costume,” but that’s the thing, it’s not “just a costume” for a lot of individuals and here’s why.

1. A “Gypsy”

A woman holding tarot cards and a glass globe in a stereotypical costume.
[Image description: A woman holding tarot cards and a glass globe in a stereotypical costume. ] Via Costume Supercenter
The term “Gypsy” is often used to refer to the Romani people, a population that has been displaced and persecuted for centuries since their migration from India to Europe. The term “gypsy” in itself is an ethnic slur and completely derogatory. The costume plays into the same negative stereotypes of being thieves, scammers and fortune-tellers, that were previously used to justify the persecution of Romani people. The costume further reinforces the stereotype that essentially glorifies their marginalization as we would often associate these traits with that of Romani People.

2. A Geisha

A woman holding a red parasol, with a black kimono and high heels.
[Image Description: A woman holding a red parasol, with a black kimono and high heels.] Via Amazon
Geisha is a Japanese term used to describe women who are highly trained in dance, music and entertainment, it translates to “artisan”. However, the West somehow managed to translate the concept of a Geisha into a prostitute who is perceived as exotic. The very concept of Asian culture as exotic is grounded in Orientalism where Western cultures viewed Eastern Cultures as foreign and “other”. The costume is also a form of cultural appropriation considering the extent to which it has become hypersexualized. It essence, such a costume trains people to view certain cultures in a way that strips them of their respect and ignores the rich cultural traditions around it.

3.  Thug

Five white girls posing and dressed up in baggy pants, white t-shirts and tank tops.
[Image Description: Five white girls posing and dressed up in baggy pants, white t-shirts, and tank tops. ] Via Sorority Please on Pinterest
This costume consisting of baggy pants, white vests and tattoos has been seen multiple times before, but it feeds into racist stereotypes about Black men. The term “thug” has been commonly misinterpreted to mean “criminal”. Thug life is a word meant to describe a person who started from nothing and built themselves up to something; it’s an expression of pride by the Black community. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the word “thug” took on a radicalized subtext regardless of whether these individuals actually engaged in criminal life or not. Wearing these costumes encourages the negative stereotypes that perpetuate Black Men as criminals and have negative consequences on their lives every day. 

4. Polynesian Culture

A child smiling, dressed in a Maui costume.
[Image Description: A child smiling, dressed in a Maui costume] via Huffpost
Back in 2016, Disney pulled its controversial Maui costume from its website after backlash arose. This action highlighted significant issues in the appropriation of Polynesian culture for the sake of a Halloween costume. The tattoos on Maui’s costume essentially ignore the fact that tattoos are sacred to a lot of Polynesian cultures and date back 2000 years. Commodifying this is degrading to Polynesian culture and disrespectful as it neglects the rich history surrounding it.

5. A “Señor” or  “Señorita”

Man wearing a sombrero, poncho, mustache and holding maracas in both his hands.
[Image Description: Man wearing a sombrero, poncho, mustache, and holding maracas in both his hands. ] Via Costume Supercenter
Sombreros, mustaches, donkeys and ponchos are all costumes that play into Mexican stereotypes, not to mention that these also fuse Mexican culture with Latinx culture as a whole. It enforces the negative tropes that have commonly been associated with Mexican culture, especially during the years that Trump has been president of the United States. It also ignores centuries of rich cultural traditions and practices and reduces it down to whitewashed symbols that skew what Mexican culture actually looks like.

6. A prisoner

A woman dressed as a prisoner wearing an orange jumpsuit that is cropped with high heels.
[Image Description: A woman dressed as a prisoner wearing an orange jumpsuit that is cropped with high heels.] Via Costumer Supercenter
Inappropriate costumes also extend past the bounds of culture. Making fun of a person’s situation is not clever or funny, especially in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a society, we have become more aware of the faulty justice system that is in place and have watched many individuals be wrongly incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Making this into a Halloween costume neglects the gravity that it has – especially for those who were, or still are, wrongly imprisoned.

7.  Homeless Man

A child dressed up as a homeless person holding a sign saying "will work for candy."
[Image Description: A child dressed up as a homeless person holding a sign saying “will work for candy.”] Via Amazon
Dressing up as a “hobo” may appear as a harmless costume, but it is a striking reality for thousands of individuals who struggle with homelessness or displacement every day. It’s downright offensive to make fun of someone’s living situation. In the U.S. alone, there are 567,000 homeless people. The “hobo” costume also perpetuates negative stereotypes about homeless people that are further reinforced when people choose to adopt these as part of their costumes. This can have very real consequences on people who are actually homeless.

8. Native American

A woman dressed in a sexy "native" American costume.
[Image Description: A woman dressed in a sexy “native” American costume. ] Via Costume Supercenter
To put it simply, there are 562 Native American nations, and each have their own history and customs that are unique to them. However, the stereotypical Native American costume still persists to this day. Americans have continually erased the visibility, voices and rights of Native Americans. So, to wear a costume of what is essentially a way of life is incredibly offensive and is insensitive to the history of the Native population and the present day difficulties that they face. The costume has been hypersexualized, too,  which has dangerous consequences on the community given that Native women experience one of the highest rates of sexual violence; they are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted in comparison to other women in the US.

There are plenty of good costumes out there that are perfect for Halloween. A good tip for the spooky holiday is to think about whether your costume perpetuates a harmful stereotype. Go with your gut – if you are questioning whether your costume is offensive then you probably should not wear it. These costumes are a part of a culture and a way of life and should not be commodified.  

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  • Sabeena Wahid

    Sabeena is an aspiring writer who is currently studying Media and English Literature at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. In her spare time, she enjoys watching and obsessing over plays and musicals, watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine over and over again, and immersing herself in high fantasy books.