Halloween costumes: cultural appropriation and racism


Costumes of Natives on sale at Spirit Halloween Store. (Hana Shafi / Ryersonian Staff)

At the Spirit Halloween Store at Yonge and Dundas, I walk through endless rows of spooky getups. Everything from Jack Skellington costumes, to grotesque zombie masks, to the ever-popular sexy nurse. But despite the enormous amount of variety and a whole universe of creatures and characters to dress up as, there are still costumes of hyper-sexualized indigenous women, Day of the Dead-themed outfits and a few varieties of “gypsy” costumes.

As Halloween approaches, students are scrambling to put together creative and creepy costumes. Flyers about Halloween-themed clubbing events have popped up all over campus, along with posters from the “culture, not a costume,” campaign posted by the RSU Racialized Students Collective.

But like every other year, some will still don racist costumes on Halloween. Despite increased awareness about how costumes of racist caricatures perpetuate harmful stereotypes against people of colour, retailers still sell them – which means that people still buy them.

Here’s the classic argument that people make in defence of such costumes: “I’m just celebrating so and so’s culture.” But a person’s culture, their sacred symbols – those are not simply costumes for celebration, they’re pieces of heritage intrinsic to cultures that have suffered extreme marginalization through the process of colonization. They are not things that you adorn for a night of partying. They are not things to be packaged, commodified or exploited for commercial purposes.

What’s worse is that several of these costumes adopt offensive language as well. The term “gypsy” is a slur for Roma people, who have faced enormous persecution throughout Europe. I see costumes of native-style clothing titled “Indian Princess,” “Wild Frontier” and “Reservation Royalty.”

There’s never a right time for a non-native person to dress in the clothing of any indigenous group, but this Halloween the timing would be especially offensive. Now that cases of missing and murdered indigenous women are gaining more media coverage, the fact that many of these crimes are swept under the rug is coming to light. Sexualized caricatures of indigenous women is part of the reason why they’ve been so marginalized and disproportionately targeted in acts of violence.

During colonization, “terra nullius,” or “land belonging to no one,” was not just a metaphor for the so-called undiscovered land, but a platform on which to colonize the bodies of indigenous women with sexual violence. Their bodies were perceived as the empty land to be conquered.

It’s why for decades residential schools were able to get away with heinous crimes of sexual abuse against indigenous girls.
It’s why indigenous women are three times more likely to experience violence in their life, and why almost 1,200 indigenous women have gone missing or murdered.

If you don an “Indian Princess” or “Sexy Eskimo” costume, you’re ignoring the gravity of the monstrous crimes committed against these indigenous peoples. If you wear a costume called “Asian Empress” with hand fans and a mini-skirted pseudo-kimono, you’re communicating to the world that you see Asia as a monolith and are OK with perpetuating the harmful fetishization of Asian women. If you wear a “gypsy” costume, you tell me that you don’t mind promoting every incorrect stereotype of Roma people. And if you wear blackface, you’re telling me that the dehumanizing history of blackface doesn’t bother you at all.

And with all the politics aside, you’re saying that you’d rather spend $60 on a generic, mass-produced piece of cloth instead of applying an ounce of originality.

Halloween is a time where we should get into the spirit of plain old fun and imagination. What it isn’t is an excuse to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and desecrate cultures by wearing those very stereotypes on you.

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