When the Costumes Don’t Come Off: Why Your ‘Cultural Costume’ Is Probably Not Okay

The most important takeaway from this post is that wearing someone’s identity as a costume is a privilege.

Halloween is upon us, and I can already smell cultural appropriation in the air. This time of the year brings out the sexy, wild, fun, and (sometimes unknowingly) racist costumes and behaviors in those participating.  While most people are “just looking for a good time,” if one’s Halloween costume represents or mimics a cultural group or its practices, things start to get problematic fast.  Costumes are notoriously known to depict stereotypical, racist, and overall negative portrayals of people of color and other oppressed groups. Most popular costumes for women (although male costumes are not exempt) marginalize and make a mockery of the native, “foreign,” and/or culture of women of color.


(retrieved from halloweencostumes.com)

Perhaps after viewing the pictures above, it is clear why wearing these costumes is disrespectful to women and people of color. But the question still remains: how does wearing a “sexy Indian” or “dragon lady” costume harm people?

1. According to Amnesty International, Native American/American Indian women “are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in general. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than 1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped in their lifetime. It is important to note that sexual violence is underreported across the board. Considering the high rates of male sexual violence against American Indian women, research has suggested that American Indian women are targeted specifically because of their Native identity.

2. As shown in the pictures above, the increasing trend of the “sexy Native woman” perpetuates the hypersexualization of women of color. In popular media, women of colors’ personhood comes as an afterthought while their sexual prowess and sexual image is judged first (as if it’s the most important or signifying thing about them). This is particularly frightening because young girls of color are being seen as “grown” or “sexually available” at startlingly younger ages. By sexualizing women of color to the point of dehumanization, it is easier to both justify violence against them and claim that sexual assault is not really assualt at all. This idea stems from the belief that because women of color are so hypersexual that cannot be violated and actually welcome male’s sexual advancements (i.e. they were asking for it).

3. Culturally appropriative costumes successfully further the marginalization of already oppressed groups of women. The very act of wearing someone’s identity or culture as a costume dehumanizes and reduces them into the simple role of a character or commodity that exists for one’s amusement. This is disgusting. As a result of this dehumanization, it is easier for the (very white supremacist) society we live in to justify and withhold attention away from the sexual assault of women of color by men.

So what does this all mean to you?

The most important takeaway from this post is that wearing someone’s identity as a costume is a privilege. You are able to ignore and maybe even be unaware of the daily discrimination and systematic oppression that people within a culture face and take off “the costume” when it is no longer beneficial to you. People of color have no such luck, and your trivialization of an entire group of people serves to further marginalize these groups that have a history of oppression in our society. So this Halloween season, and in your day-to-day life, be aware of how you interact with cultures that are not your own and how your engagement with them can contribute to a larger system of oppression and marginalization.

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