back of a girl's head with hairpin
October 26, 2017
2 mins read

Culture is not a costume

The topic of cultural appropriation can be the tinder of a lot of online flame wars, but especially around Halloween, it’s something we should all be aware of.

With Halloween happening this weekend, some of us are scrambling to find last-minute costumes. But hopefully you think twice before you pick up a ‘Powwow Princess’ or ‘Ghetto Thug’ costume at a thrift store. 

Cultural appropriation

What does this tricky buzzword really mean?

Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another, typically by a dominant culture or society.

The difference between cultural collaboration or exchange and cultural appropriation is the power dynamic – the culture that is being stereotyped or borrowed from is typically a marginalised one or from a minority group compared to the dominant cultural narrative.

Problematic Halloween costumes reinforce these shallow depictions of complex cultures and identities – and perpetuate the kind of oppression we should be striving to challenge.

“But I’m not racist”

Before you say it, I get it. But it’s important to think about our decisions even if we think we’re respectful and unprejudiced people because sometimes it’s easy to forget. What we say and do can still be problematic even when we don’t intend it to be.

Remember that a person’s race, culture or ethnicity shouldn’t be a costume – ironic or not. Someone’s identity is not a trope you can turn into a last-minute costume idea.

Sacred objects are not accessories

For instance, first nations headdresses carry a ceremonial significance and represent the responsibilities and ties the wearer has to their community. Halloween costumes are often inaccurate or one-dimensional depictions of a rich Indigenous history. 

As students of UBC, this topic is even more pertinent and complex because of our relationship with the Musqueam people. The UBC Vancouver campus is located on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam people – a land with a history that long exceeds UBC’s. You’ve probably heard of this acknowledgment in the past, but it’s not simply a formality – it’s important to understand the meaning behind these words.

Take care in what you wear

If your costume trivializes a culture, race, or group of people and you find yourself second guessing if it’s offensive –  it probably is.

And before you say it’s just a joke, or ask why people are getting so worked up on being politically correct, remember: you don’t get to decide who does or does not get offended.

We don’t live in a post-racial utopia. Oppression and injustices are still a reality for a lot of marginalized groups. Take the time to think about the impact of how you dress and act if it were any other day – Halloween is not a ‘get-out-of jail-free-card’ day where racist, sexist, homophobic, or just plain offensive actions can be justified as satirical or funny.

With this in mind, take it as an opportunity to get really creative. I, for one, would love to see a zombie Joe Biden.

You play a bigger part than you think in making UBC a respectful, inclusive, and fun community.

Have a Happy Halloween!