Appreciation or Appropriation?

Halloween season is upon us and I’m sure almost everyone is frantically trying to decide on a costume for the one of many parties that we’ve agreed to go to. Traditionally, Halloween is a day which enables people to remember the dead, and hence many believe the festival to be rooted in paganism. Less traditionally, the dead are celebrated at Halloween through the parade of fancy dress, where people typically dress up in scary costumes, such as vampires and zombies. Though, more recently the lines between costume and culture are becoming blurred. Some people are no longer satisfied dressing up as witches and werewolves, but instead are unconsciously perpetrating racist stereotypes, through disguising their identity not through costume, but instead through people’s traditional and sentimental cultural attire. Native Americans, Egyptians and Mexicans are frequently seen “costumes”, as people ignorantly squirt fake blood from the corner of their eyes and mouths, in attempt to validate their costume as a “Dead Mexican”. This act of displaying somebody else’s culture as a costume isn’t honorary as many suggest when justifying why they and two friends have chosen to “dress up” in a hijab and shalwar kameez. It is offensive when you appropriate someone’s culture for Halloween as it is very likely that your costume is a misinterpretation of their heritage.

Alongside this, you are actively overlooking their history through mocking their identity. Countless Muslim women are both verbally and physically abused for their religious display of the hijab, however people who choose to parade this cultural attire on Halloween, as a costume, are immune to this. Being aware of the stigma surrounding such cultural dress and proceeding to use Halloween as an excuse to display this “costume” is demeaning. Cultural existence is not comical. As Halloween now has less traditional and religious grounding, it is instead more widely understood as a day of dressing up as something “other” and so consequently, through dressing up in traditional cultural attire, the chosen culture is “othered” and presented as something to belittle.

I think ultimately what some people fail to recognise, is that the cultured attire being transformed into costume, have meaning. Historically, women in the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia, began marking their foreheads with a bright dot of colour to create a bindi. Each colour has a symbolic meaning and this meaning can vary based on religion and location.

Not only are cultural costumes not appropriate costumes, but neither are people’s religion, sexual or gender identity. Taking any of these minority groups and transforming them into a costume, is to ignore the source. To ignore the years of marginalisation, discrimination and oppression. To ignore the endured years of hate crimes and then proceed to mock their identity – an identity which many minority groups have had to fight to maintain and to prevent from being lost by coloniser culture.

I’d like to think that almost everyone can now see the horrors of minstrel blackface – a non-black person colouring their face to imitate (and appropriate) black culture – though it was only last month that three players from a Tasmanian football club had to apologise for wearing blackface to dress up as Serena and Venus Williams. This controversy was seen only a week after Mark Knight’s cartoon of Serena Williams for the Herald Sun, was branded as racist, offensive and sexist. As I said, I’d like to think that everyone these days recognises such interpretations of black people as offensive and in particular bad taste, though based on the above, this does not seem to be the case. I’m not saying not to dress up as the Williams’ sisters, or as another black figure, though I do think that there are plenty of ways to do so without the artificial colouring of your skin.

I believe it goes without saying that certain problematic historical figures and groups should also be avoided. Dressing up as Hitler or the KKK at Halloween is not funny. Reducing the horrific actions of these groups and figures, to a cheap and flippant nylon costume is dismissive of the endless years of consequential trauma to the many victims. It also insensitively uproots emotions which people may have been trying to suppress. Furthermore, turning a figure like Hitler into a costume unconsciously normalises the comical acceptance of him within society. There is nothing humorous about imitating people who have caused mass destruction and devastation.

Clearly where there is a demand, shops will supply, so as not to offend Halloween is for fancy dress, but fancy dress is for a costume, not another culture.

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