Costumes and Appropriation


With Halloween having recently passed, and being in the midst of Dia de Los Muertos, I feel compelled to write about cultural appropriation. But I don’t want to list out the do’s and don’t’s of costumes, festival attire, hairstyles etc. While those lists are extremely important, there are enough floating around by now that I don’t feel the need to list them out here.

What I want to talk about is resistance to pleas by individual communities and social justice advocates alike to stop wearing cultures as costumes and bastardizing the cultural significance of so many symbols, garments and practices. Why do some people feel so compelled to push back against these requests? The most obvious answer is...


“I want to do it anyway,” or the feeling that white folks and people with other privileged identities should have access to anything and everything they want to participate in, dress up as, or have on their key chains. This same feeling of entitlement causes push-back against safe spaces for people of certain identities- where they can feel sure that the people entering will not put them in physical or emotional harm by being transphobic, queerphobic or racist, for example.

Being denied access to a certain space or cultural symbol or practice challenges the notion that whiteness and otherwise privileged identities should give one access to anything and everything they want. What white, cis and heterosexual folks aren’t taking into consideration is that every other space affords safety and access to whiteness, to cisness, to straightness, etc.

Another, more subtle mechanism of resisting these pleas by communities and social justice advocates is a systematic invalidating and discreditation of marginalized communities- specifically those of color. That people of color’s voices on the subject of their own cultural practices, symbols and fashion are subjectified. They are made to seem as though they are too close to the matter to be “objective,” and therefore there arguments of what is sacred and what is available to share are discounted, as if the practice of deeming things sacred is some scientific process, once again, only available to cishet white men.

Even in the case of allies speaking out against cultural appropriation, the rhetoric behind the disagreement is a disbelief that this could even be an issue. The “I have a friend who…” arguments roll out. It becomes a question of whether it is objectively okay to do x, y, or z, rather than a conversation about whether other human beings will feel hurt or disrespected, or be systematically disadvantaged because of a white person’s choice of costume.

What is being ignored time and time again, are the embodied experiences of the communities who have said these practices, costumes, etc are offensive. Whether some costume or festival outfit is racist or not, should not be calculated based on some formula of [how much one respects culture X whiteness / number of social media comments condemning the costume].

It should be a consideration of:

  • Is this symbol/ outfit/ practice culturally specific?

  • If so, am I a part of that culture?

  • Do I have the potential to cause hurt and harm if I participate in this practice/ wear this costume?

If I don’t know, do I want to risk causing someone hurt or harm anyway? The answer should be no. And if it’s not, follow up questions may be in order: why do I feel that it is worth it to potentially cause another person harm? Do I hold this community at a lesser value than my own? Etc.

In short, lists of do’s and don’t’s may be helpful if one is unfamiliar with matters of cultural appropriation, but a more in depth analysis is needed. Empathy and care toward other communities, especially vulnerable communities is needed. Checking privilege, and existing access and questioning whether being denied access to one’s cultural practices and symbols is truly causing harm to you- or just some mild disappointment/fomo.

At the end of the day the question should always be whether someone is feeling harmed or hurt as the result of your actions and decisions. And if so, having the empathy to be compelled to end that pain and find ways to respect, uplift and care for communities outside of your own- even if that means being quiet,leaving a space, finding another costume.

Rachel BiccumComment