Halloween ushers in another year of insensitive costumes

Halloween ushers in a fun season for college students, but culturally appropriating costumes threaten to ruin the fun. Graphic by Maria Nevada

Will Patterson

It’s Halloween season, and you know what the means: pumpkin carving, seasonal sweets and a plethora of culturally insensitive costumes.

The annual cultural appropriation debate has arrived. As with every year, members from various cultures have to speak out against offensive depictions.

UNO student Lilly Tamayo shared her thoughts about cultural appropriation at Halloween time (and the rest of the year). Tamayo is the president of UNO’s Intertribal Student Council and the co-director of the American Multicultural Student Agency at UNO.

Tamayo describes herself as part Mexican and part Native American. Every year she sees non-Native people adorning fake cultural outfits as Halloween costumes.

“I’m not trying to be the PC police,” Tamayo said. “But if you’re directly mocking or stereotyping or doing anything for a race that’s not yours—just don’t.”

The typical defense for a costume that misuses culturally significant clothing or accessories is that the wearer is appreciating the depicted culture. This defense falls flat in the face of becoming a Halloween prop.

“If you’re appropriating and using the defense of appreciating only one day out of the year, does that really count? No,” Tamayo said.

This discussion of appreciation versus appropriation does not end on Nov. 1. Widespread cultural appropriation has been a long-standing problem with growing recognition, and there are plenty of different sides being argued.

A New York Times opinion article from last year made waves on the issue. The op-ed written by opinion contributor Kenan Malik was titled “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation.”

The Times article uses examples from culture blending in the past—such as Elvis Presley’s use of traditionally African-American music styles. Malik argues that progressives are causing more harm than good when they enforce anti-appropriation measures and several instances he cites do seem ridiculous when analyzed.

Malik makes a compelling argument, but what he and other like-minded supporters overlook is how cultural appropriation typically functions. While he is concerned about writers and artists being limited in the subjects, he skips over the threats facing the actual groups. Typically, appropriation comes in the form of something simple—like a costume—that slowly but surely chips away at a cultural identity.

Assigned identities—such as race—are particularly problematic to impersonate. When the sun rises and the Halloween season ends, a costume wearer sheds whatever identity they possessed for an evening. Actual members of those groups do not share the option. They will continue to face oppression and uphill battles. Meanwhile, those who “appreciated” their culture for an evening will often be absent in the continued day-to-day struggles.

“Appreciating is going to native events, such as the pow wow, and watching the dancers, being a spectator, supporting native artists that are there,” Tamayo said. “Appropriating is taking what you saw and cultivating it as your own and marking it as something that is yours for the taking. That’s where appreciation turns into appropriation.”

The gist is that this Halloween people should wary of what messages their costumes send. Regardless of intention, misusing another culture’s attire for Halloween can carry harmful and offensive side effects.