Why You Can’t Wear That for Halloween


Ayah Yusuf, Writer

I don’t do Halloween. I’ve never been trick-or-treating, I never dress-up, and I certainly do not buy candy for small children to just take from me. And the reason I don’t do any of that is because it’s all fun and games until someone shows up at my house with Middle Eastern clothes and say they’re dressed as “a terrorist.”

Cultural appropriation is a real problem in America, especially around Halloween. The biggest issue is that many people aren’t even aware of what qualifies as cultural appropriation or its effect on people whose culture is being stolen. This is largely due to the lack of education surrounding this issue to those who are not widely affected by it. And, quite honestly, that needs to be fixed. So I’m going to break down the Halloween issue for you all today, step by step, starting with what cultural appropriation is, how your Halloween costume may be appropriation, down to how to avoid being offensive to someone else’s culture. 

According to the Oxford dictionary, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” That’s kind of a long definition, so let me break it down for you with an example. Let’s suppose you are a White woman going about your everyday life, and you see a woman of color walk by with cornrows. You think to yourself, “Wow, those cornrows look so nice; I should get my hair done like that.” So you do. And just like that, you have committed cultural appropriation. 

Some people reading may be thinking, “But wait, Ayah, she thought the cornrows were nice! How is that cultural appropriation?” That’s totally fine. I’m here to explain to you how it is. Our sweet White lady in the former example is a member of a dominant people (her identification as a White woman). She adopted the typically African-American or Black culture’s tradition of braiding hair in cornrows as part of her own culture by choosing to do her hair this particular way. This second part is where she went wrong, in this example, for two reasons. The first is this woman may not know the cultural background of cornrows. She most likely does not look at the braids and think of how long ago in many African countries and tribes and traditions, intricate patterns were braided into hair to symbolize higher classes. She most likely does not think of how, during times of slavery, escape routes and maps to freedom were braided into hair to guide runaway slaves. Most likely, she looks at the braids and thinks of fashion. So when she does braid her hair into the tight cornrows, she unintentionally and unknowingly throws away all of the history and significance of those braids. 

The second reason that this particular example is cultural appropriation is that that woman makes the braids “cool.” As a Black woman in the workplace, braids and natural hair is often seen as messy and unprofessional despite its cultural and maybe even personal importance. If a woman of color were to walk in to work with cornrows, there is a major possibility that she would get penalized for it. A white woman with the braids, however, would not be seen in the same way. It would be okay for the white woman to wear the cornrows, but the woman whose culture actually includes cornrows traditionally would be seen as a myriad of stereotypes. 

This unequal and unfair comparison between our White woman and her POC (person of color) counterpart is why cultural appropriation is so harmful. Not being able to celebrate your own culture, and then seeing someone else wearing your clothes, your hairstyles, and your symbols, hurts. It hurts even more when they suddenly make it “socially acceptable.” And those doing the stealing, intentionally or unintentionally, keep this cycle alive. This double standard, however, is not the only effect of this issue. Often, cultural appropriation also reinforces harmful stereotypes about the appropriated culture. 

Let’s look at an example of this, too. This time, I will refer to the first example I gave in this article — specifically the one about a teenager trick-or-treating in traditional Middle Eastern clothing and claiming that they’re dressed as a terrorist. Through “dressing up” as someone who commits radical hate crimes by wearing a Middle Eastern person’s traditional clothes, you are equating them to terrorism through a single aspect of their character. That, in turn, simplifies a person and a group down to a single identity, rather than viewing them as the multi-faceted and complicated entity that they are. And, not gonna lie, that’s not something that we want to do anybody, intentionally or unintentionally. 

So knowing what cultural appropriation is and its effect on those whose culture is being stolen, the next step is learning how to avoid committing cultural appropriation in the first place. And this can be broken down into a couple of quick steps:

  • Identify what culture that the garment you’re wearing or the hairstyle you’re rocking or the ceremony you’re participating in is a part of.

If this is your own culture, congrats, you’re done! Most of the time, however, the subject is not a part of your culture. This step does require a bit of research, but to know what something is, you have to know where it comes from, right?

  • Know the purpose of the subject you’re wearing.

Know what the subject is actually used for traditionally and culturally. This step is partially done anyways because you actually have to know what something does before you use it. I’m asking you to go a little deeper. For example, you know that a du-rag is something men and women of color wear on their heads, but why do they wear them? Du-rags are used to protect the curl of your hair, especially after styling. That second bit is the important part you need to know. 

  • Ask yourself if you participating in the subject or use of the subject is more socially acceptable than someone of that culture participating.

Cultural appropriation, especially as I think of it, is when someone of a dominant race is more socially accepted participating in a piece of culture than someone who is of the culture appropriated. To understand fully if you are committing an act of cultural appropriation, ask yourself whether or not there is a difference between you participating and someone who doesn’t share your identity participating. If there is a difference, don’t participate.

At the end of the day, if you’re aware of cultural appropriation, it’s so simple to avoid. All we need to do is to be aware of our effect on the perception of different customs and traditions. So maybe this year, skip the turban or the thug outfit and just be a pirate. Pirates are always a good option, right?

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