As the spookiest time of year rolls around once more, alongside the fun and sugar comes a darker side of the Halloween holiday period. No, not the shocking amount of wasted pumpkins, but the dehumanisation of others rooted in colonialism, privilege and white supremacy.

That’s right, I’m talking about cultural appropriation. It’s a topic I’ve covered on this blog before in regards to our attitudes to fairtrade fashion, but if theres one period of time when these words become most hotly debated, it’s Halloween. And, because I know most of my audience are already conscious and informed individuals, this year I thought instead of talking about how not to culturally appropriate (because it’s extremely easy to find a costume that doesn’t involve going as another culture/race if you just, like, try for a whole thirty seconds) I’d focus on how to have conversations with the problematic costumes or attitudes we’re likely to face in Halloween situations throughout the week.

So first let me acknowledge that I know I’m a white person writing this. The reason I’ve chosen to is because it is not the job of people of colour to educate us about their oppression. This is lazy on our side, and asking POC to take part in the dismantling of the systems white people have built to marginalise them is to ask them to put in more emotional labour, and potentially cover very traumatic ground, when they’re already exhausted from living with the reality of racism on a daily basis. It is our job as allies to educate ourselves (fellow white people, this is an incredible resource), and to use the privilege we carry, one which keeps us safe from many forms of systemic violence and danger, to have these conversation with others too.

‘Not challenging your white friends when they’re being racist is a form of covert white supremacy, and makes you complicit in their cultural appropriation. Part of your job as an ally is to always call out other white people for racist behavior, despite your own discomfort. So go ahead. Make sure your friends aren’t showing up to a Halloween party dressed like an indigenous person, and if they do, you sure as hell better let them know why it’s wrong.’ (source)

So what is cultural appropriation?

I still stick by Dazed’s definition for an easy explainer:

‘It’s picking and choosing which parts of a culture you want to participate in, often reducing significant cultural wear or styles to fashion statements. It’s wearing a hijab and bindi in a selfie without having to deal with the micro-aggressions many of us face while sporting the same attire. Especially with Islamophobia being pretty rampant right now, many hijabis face violent consequences for wearing things inherent to their culture, whereas someone posing in one is unlikely to suffer the same injustice.’

We see cultural appropriation and power imbalance all over the place: costumes at Coachella, fashion magazines, and food trends make up just a few of these examples. But during Halloween specifically, cultural appropriation looks like taking sacred elements of a culture, or physical features of people of colour such as their hair or skin colour, and putting them on as a costume. Because when you turn things that aren’t part of your identity into a costume, you also have the privilege to take it off at the end of the night without having experienced the opression, injustice and racism that comes with actually existing as a person of that culture or race.

‘It’s the manifestation of one of the earliest, most enduring racist ideals: the belief that people who belong to marginalized cultures are somehow less than human. Once you’ve dehumanized someone, you can co-opt their culture with ease; their language, dress, and customs aren’t worthy of the respect you reserve for your own. On top of centuries of oppression, marginalized groups must now contend with people mocking their identity, right in front of their faces. And when they speak up, critics rush to attack and silence them.’ (source)

As I’ve said before, cultural appropriation ultimately always boils down to structures of power. It usually manifests as white people adopting aesthetic forms from the cultures of minorities and having the power to live consequence free, while minorities deal with discrimination for the exact same things, even though they are part of their genetics or culture. And because power plays into it, to dress up as someone from a marginalised identity group when you hold more power in society is to reduce their three dimensional identity as a person and a culture to a bit of fun for the amusement of white people. It both perpetuates stereotypes and suggests that people of colour aren’t fully realised people. It’s humiliating, it’s dehumanising, it’s degrading. It is racism.

‘The only way to mimic a culture without appropriating it is by experiencing the bad things they went through.

So if your daughter thinks a Native American princess’s feathers and buckskin skirt are cute, she can wear it with one caveat: White men must come to your house in the middle of the night, steal all your food, murder everyone she knows, declare that your house is now theirs and force your daughter to relocate to a Halloween reservation especially set aside for all the little white girls who want to dress up as a pretty little Disney Indian.’ (source)

But how do we communicate that to people who think it’s all a bit of fun?

I did a bit of digging online to see what advice was already out there. I’ve combined the best of it below, a lot of this is sourced from this article by Hello Giggles.

Open with a question

Often if you go in with an assumption of how aware someone is or isn’t, and then try and teach them from this assumption, they can feel accused and immediately shut down and get defensive. It’s often best to assume ignorance and go in with a softer approach at first, as it opens up more chance of learning and growth.

‘”Start the conversation by asking if they’ve considered that their costumes may be perceived as offensive to some people,” recommends Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, psychologist and founder of Therapy For Black Girls. “[Then, ask them to] examine the consequences should they proceed with wearing it and the message it sends about who they are and what kind of person they might be.”

Instead of sending a passive-aggressive text message suggesting that they’re racist, simply ask a question such as:

How do you think that [insert marginalized group here] would feel about your costume?
What made you choose to dress as [insert problematic costume choice] this year?

You can even make make suggestions to them: “Instead of using your Forever 21 fringe skirt to dress up as a Native American, why not dress up as a hippie’

This is similar to the concept of calling out vs calling in. There are times and places for both. For example, if you see someone in public in blackface or yellowface who is using racial slurs or doing impersonations, you absolutely have every right to put them on blast and call them out for their racism and ignorance in public (if it is safe for you to do so). In this scenario the individual is being public and blatant in their racism, so it is our responsibility to show that that kind of behaviour cannot and will not be tolerated, and so responding publicly in turn declares that message. However if it’s someone we may know doesn’t have bad intentions but has made a mistake, or we can anticipate that they’re more likely to learn and change their decisions from a more conversation based approach, then this can be a really helpful approach.

Avoid centering the conversation around you

If you approach a conversation like this saying ‘hey, this is offensive’ it’s also easy for the other party to assume this isn’t a systemic problem, but something specific to you. It can be tempting for someone to avoid doing the real work of change, which can be difficult, when they can instead write it off as simply one person being overly sensitive or judgemental.

If the person you’re talking to tries to steer the conversation in this direction, always recentre it back onto what other people are going to think of their choices or actions. Examples could include:

Are you worried that people are going to get angry at you for wearing that costume?

Have you seen what people have been saying online about people who dress up like [insert problematic costume here]?

This is obviously different if someone is dressed up in something that directly affects you, for example if you’re Indian and someone decides to wear a sari. However if you’re white and cisgender this approach can be more effective in getting someone to think of the larger world around them, not just your opinion on their costume choices.

Evaluate what type of social interaction will be most effective

Beyond deciding on calling in rather than calling out, it’s also good to then consider what type of interaction is most likely to encourage change depending on who you’re going to talk to. If it’s within a group will that person feel embarassed or anxious to engage in front of others, or if it’s one on one could that person feel cornered and get defensive? It’s about figuring out how best to create the space to meaningfully engage, educate and prompt change. Or, on the other hand, will it be better to go through a system of communication rather than talking to a specific person:

‘On the other hand, if you try to, say, individually talk to a group of sorority sisters dressed up as “sexy immigrants,” then you might be ignored and called a killjoy. I saw this happen firsthand in college. A new freshman in our sorority posted in our Facebook group, criticizing an upcoming Thanksgiving-themed social; the term “nava-hoes” had even been used on the flyer.

My sorority sisters treated this lesson like an “attack” because it had been done behind a computer, instead of face to face. And, of course, there were lots of the “Wow, why can’t we just have fun?” reactions… The freshman sister could have approached certain girls with leadership roles individually, and brought up the fact that dressing as Native Americans would make us look like ignorant, privileged, stereotypical sorority girl assholes. Maybe, that way, more girls would have listened. Maybe. at the very least, if they still didn’t learn to empathize, their fears of judgment would have prevented the offensive behavior.’ (source)

Discuss mental health

When people don’t understand cultural appropriation they can play it off as being overly sensitive or politically correct. In reality cultural appropriation can have very real adverse effects on someones health. If the person you’re talking to doesn’t engage with the racial and cultural implications of their choice, it can be useful to reframe the conversation in the context of mental health. Although this is obviously depends on the individual’s attitude to mental health, it can provide another way in that helps them understand, or a more common ground that helps them relate to those they may be hurting. While a white person doesn’t experience cultural appropriation, they can experience trauma, emotional triggering and anxiety, and this may be a way which helps them understand.

‘Oftentimes, when people express disdain for cultural appropriation, it is because it goes beyond being “offensive,” and causes an emotional trigger (no, not an internet troll’s definition of “trigger”). Racism has been shown to cause post-traumatic stress disorder, and symptoms of PTSD are at times induced by outside stimuli — for example, a person of color with race-related PTSD may be triggered into a panic attack just seeing someone dressed up as Trayvon Martin for Halloween.’ (source)

The three S’s

When leaving your conversation you want to move beyond pointing out the problems with someone’s choices, and ultimately point them towards ways to make better choices in future.

Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law gives a handy breakdown for how people can approach their choices in future:

  • Source: Think first about the source culture. Is this a culture that has been historically discriminated against or oppressed? If so, proceed with caution. 
  • Significance (or sacredness): What’s the significance of what you’re taking? Is it something that is of major cultural significance, or maybe even something sacred, or is it just a run-of-the-mill ordinary item, an everyday commodity? (American Indian headdresses, Scafidi said, are the “equivalent of military medals. They’re not just decoration or hats or jewelry or something ornamental. They mean something.”)
  • Similarity: And finally, think about the similarity of what you’re doing. Are you interpreting or being inspired by someone else’s culture, or are you just making an exact copy?


And beyond this, you can encourage people to research the culture not costume campaign and consider this when making future choices.

At the end of the day these conversations are often difficult to have, and you can’t always guarantee that they’ll work. But this Halloween I hope you’ll try. Even if it doesn’t cause an overnight change in someone, it could be one small step of a larger journey the means they eventually get there. And when it comes to looking out for each other on this planet, we need to make the effort.