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Cultural appropriation is the real Halloween nightmare

By Amara Coelho

This Halloween remember that your ‘edgy’ costume could be someone’s biggest nightmare.

Having spent the earlier part of my childhood growing up in India, I was grossly unprepared for dealing with the covert and blatant racism I would be forced to encounter persistently when I moved to the West. These situations ranged from the borderline hilarity of the occasional innocent query of what shade of tanner I used for my natural bronzed glow, to which my response was my love of spending excessive amounts of time in the sun, albeit a difficult feat to achieve in the bright tropics of Glasgow, and not at all as a result my mixed heritage. Or the wonder some of my acquaintances displayed over how it was humanly possible to grow dark eyelashes. 

However, this light-heartedness is completely overshadowed by the numerous occurrences of being branded a terrorist by complete strangers; with a particular highlight being a white teen shouting about sacrificing a goat at me and my hijab-wearing friend as we ate, to the raucous laughter of his friends.

These types of experiences are rife amongst the BAME community. The societal disconnect between widespread awareness of these perspectives and the lack of proper acknowledgement attributed to the true cultural and historical origins of integral components of minority groups is not only inherently problematic, but a major contributor to cultural appropriation.  

Despite the disparity between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, there fails to be a widely accepted definition as to what either truly constitutes, which is reflected heavily in the nature of “cancel culture”. Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and Rita Ora have all been the recipients of harsh criticism and social stigma as a result of appropriating cultures other than their own. However, in the majority of situations perpetrators rarely receive more than a slap on the wrist, and after a flurry of rushed tweets emphasising their “great love and respect” of the culture in question, and promising to learn more and do better next time, all is but forgotten. Yet, where was this research and care before Kim Kardashian chooses to waltz about wearing cornrows?   

Halloween, the fifth most celebrated holiday of costumed Capitalism is an especially notorious time of year for cultural appropriation to rear its ugly head. Yet, amongst the student favourites of sexy nurses, sexy clowns, and pretty much anything else that can be sexualised, comes the much starker “Native American” costume, “Arab Sheikh” outfit, and multitudes of others involving individuals appropriating traditional national costume or darkening their skin to pose as a person of colour. 

Collectively, universities are littered with tales of offensive dress up, which is clear in how often student unions have had to take action to prevent racist costumes. In 2019 Sheffield University had to ban Mexican-style sombreros at Halloween; and years prior Birmingham University’s Guild of Students had to ban students from attending Halloween parties in “racist” fancy dress costumes, claiming that the policy hardly limited the abundance of other fancy dress costumes available to them. 

This callous behaviour however isn’t just limited to students, there are several instances of members of university staff and other higher ups being equally predisposed to committing atrocious acts like these. A case in point is the law professor at the University of Oregon in 2016 who was suspended for attending an off-campus Halloween party in Blackface.

Irrespective of whether an individual who consciously chooses to wear an offensive Halloween costume is behaving out of sheer malice or perhaps complete ignorance, it still does not negate the dehumanization these actions inflict on minority groups. During the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, Karlie Kloss wore a Native American headdress, which is not only sacred but historically worn by Native American chiefs and warriors – each feather bearing deep meaning and only earned through the most explicit acts of bravery and honour. 

Choosing to wear a costume which perpetuates stereotypes and appropriates someone’s culture is not only deeply insulting due to their identities, but it fundamentally disregards that this is not just a costume that they too can take off – it is an essential part of their lives and history, and should not be improperly used by those who don’t understand this.

Ignorance of these issues is reflective of the much-needed variety missing within school curriculums across Britain. At present it is overtly whitewashed, with most students failing to be introduced to African history from a non-Eurocentric lens, beyond a superficial glance at colonialism or the slave trade, until university level. 

The Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained significant traction over the course of 2020, I believe is beginning to spur a societal shift towards greater cultural appreciation. More young adults are taking it upon themselves to learn about issues they weren’t introduced to at school, and to better understand the experiences of Black people. This can not only be seen across social media posts, but even in the New York Times Best Sellers’ list, where Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ijeoma Oluo’s So you want to talk about Race currently sit in first and second place respectively.

An issue which remains to be tackled is the confusion over whether something is cultural appropriation or appreciation. The adopting of styles, culture or mannerisms of a minority group without due recognition of their cultural and historic significance is deeply problematic.  Those who adopt these habits are often praised while the groups who they originate from remain shamed and unacknowledged, and it is inherently contradictory for those who claim to act out of cultural appreciation to not acknowledge the origin. 

Ultimately, we each hold the personal responsibility to work towards diminishing the issue of cultural appropriation, and ensuring that those who do act in an unfavourable manner are held accountable and not allowed to escape silently into the background noise. Because with Halloween falling on a Saturday with a full moon this year things are already scary enough.      


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