Culture is not a costume, even on Halloween

Native American protesters stand outside the Phoenix office of, a retailer of "sexy Native American" costumes on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. AP Photo/Terry Tang

Oh, Halloween: the sinister holiday of ghouls, goblins … and cultural appropriation.

Even as I write those two words, I squirm in my seat, already feeling the judgmental eye-rolls. Yet, for some extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile reason, no matter how many times we write about it, speak on it, wax lyrical on this topic, some people still seem to have a really hard time understanding that culture is not costume, refusing to believe it may actually cause harm. Even in our post-“Justin Trudeau-blackface” era, Halloween 2019 has proven to be no exception when it comes to cultural insensitivity.

READ MORE: The best celebrity costumes of Halloween 2019

And our Canadian retailers weren’t exempt from this bad behaviour: Wal-Mart Canada recently pulled the almost sold-out “Hippie Dude Costume” from its stock following a complaint from a student in Antigonish, N.S.

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Members of the StFX BLACC Society Collective, a student association representing Latin, Caribbean, African and other visible minority groups at St. Francis Xavier University, saw the costume and were deeply offended. They said the dashiki — the traditional shirt associated with the costume — originates from West Africa.

“It’s taking parts of our identity and labelling it as a costume … as a joke,” said student Tiana Felix.

Walmart apologized and pulled the costume.

Yet it feels exhausting that, time and time again, these missteps have to be pointed out. Moreover, it is all too often people from marginalized communities who are the ones who carry the burden of repeatedly speaking up on cultural appropriateness.

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Beth Washburn, professor of sociology at Humber College in Toronto, sees a need for change.

“Those from historically marginalized groups should not bear the responsibility of educating others about how to be respectful and good allies,” Washburn said. “Everyone, especially those from privileged groups, needs to step up and do their own research. In our age of endless online resources, everyone can find out what is appropriate and what is not.”

With some parts of Quebec celebrating Halloween a day later due to severe weather conditions and many Halloween parties in the works for this coming weekend, it isn’t too late to make it right if your gut and common sense are telling you your costume isn’t right.

It’s also a good reminder for those who are planning on donning sugar-skull makeup to remember that Halloween and Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), which is on Nov. 2, are two completely different holidays. The nearly 3,000-year-old tradition of honouring departed souls is far from the ghoulish affair of Halloween. It is much more of a celebration of the lives lost, with the belief that for the two days of celebration, families of those departed may be able to communicate with the spirits of their loved ones who have passed.

Through the rise of social media and beauty bloggers, Catrina, or sugar-skull makeup, which is emblematic of the Mexican holiday, has become increasingly popular during Halloween. But it is important to understand the meaning behind the makeup you are wearing and do so while being respectful of that culture.

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Click to play video: 'Halloween on hold in Montreal' Halloween on hold in Montreal
Halloween on hold in Montreal – Oct 31, 2019

Truth be told, Halloween is actually one of my favourite holidays. I admittedly love dressing up, and now it is even more fun with kids as part of the equation.

I’m not quite sure why taking culture out of Halloween feels like such a big deal. With a shred of creativity, there are literally thousands of costumes to dream up that have absolutely nothing to do with “trialling” another culture — because let’s be real, Halloween night is not the time when you’re truthfully going to engage in cultural discourse or education.

And while Halloween costumes are a far cry from haute couture, we can draw from the fashion industry for some guidance. For better or worse, fashion has historically been and continues to be inspired by different cultures.

But a major problem is that historically, the people of these diverse cultures haven’t actually been represented in the designs they’ve inspired. Moreover, where do we draw the line that separates thoughtful cultural exchanges from displays of culture as costume?

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How To Win At Life, Ep.1 – Oct 25, 2019

Canadian Indigenous fashion designer Lesley Hampton differentiates it in the following way: “Appropriation is using a culture as a prop for superficial purposes. Appreciation is being inspired by a culture and having the education and knowledge to develop respectful work.”

While she acknowledges that designers may be inspired by other cultures, she says that “without paying homage and respect to their [cultural] inspiration,” it crosses the threshold and is beyond disrespectful.

All this is to say that cultural appreciation and exchanges can be a beautiful thing — especially in the arts and in genres like fashion and beauty — but they have to be done right.

Washburn agrees.

“Being curious, being respectful, asking meaningful questions, going to films or art installations, reading novels, listening to music can all be positive exchanges,” she said.

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In our #TimesUp era, the entertainment industry is finally opening its eyes to just how much farther it has to go in “solving it” when it comes to representation and diversity. Perhaps the fashion industry may finally be taking a hint, too. It is seeing that #diversitymatters and #representationmatters are more than just hashtags.

Evermore, the who — and the who’s missing — we associate with a brand impacts how we engage with it. And ultimately, we must recognize that appreciating elements of a culture, even profoundly, is not grounds for its appropriation. As Amandla Stenberg has said: “What would America be like if it loved black people as much as it loves black culture?”

Perhaps if we take more time to garner relationships with the people from whom we are drawing inspiration, looking beyond Halloween to the bigger picture of how we interact with people from other cultures than our own by including them in creative processes as well as providing platforms for them to showcase their own creative endeavours, we will be far less likely to appropriate from them because we’ll actually have a deeper appreciation of who they are — beyond the pretty patterns or makeup they’ve inspired.

And that seems remarkably appropriate on Halloween, or any day of the year.

Meera Estrada is producer and host of kultur’D on Global News Radio 640 Toronto. Follow her on Instagram @meera.estrada and Twitter @MeeraEstrada.


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