Don't Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes

Halloween is a notorious time for offensive outfits. If you’re still not sure what your costume is going to be this year, make sure you don’t go the culturally appropriative route. Dressing up as “another culture,” is racist, and an act of privilege. Not only does it lead to offensive, inaccurate, and stereotypical portrayals of other people’s culture (Do you think Día de los Muertos is just “Mexican Halloween”? Well it’s not, so put away your facepaint), but is also an act of appropriation in which someone who does not experience that oppression is able to “play,” temporarily, an “exotic” other, without experience any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures. Like dressing up as a “sexy squaw” while being completely unaware of the horrific rates of sexual violence Native women face. (Read more about the harmful effects of sexualizing Native women by Adrienne at Native Appropriations).

A white woman wearing 'tribal' facepaint and looking sexy
Macro Source: Oki, Pierogi! Photography: Danielle Yagodich

Fortunately, thanks to some college students behind Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), an Ohio University organization, cultural appropriation and costumes is getting some more attention. Their series of posters boldly challenge racist costume ideas and read, “We’re a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and it is not okay.” Already they’ve gotten coverage from ABC News the The Globe and Mail, which hopefully means their message is getting through to more folks. Here are some more posters from the campaign, click each image for a larger version:

A young, unsmiling black woman holds up a picture of a white woman in black face at a Halloween party. The poster reads We're a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and it is not okay. A young, presumably Arab, unsmiling man holds up a picture of a young, jovial white man dressed as a suicide bomber for Halloween. The poster reads We're a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and it is not okay. A young, unsmiling Native man holds up a picture of two white people dressed stereotypically as Native Americans. The poster reads We're a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and it is not okay. A young, unsmiling Latino man holds up a picture of a costume of a sombrero-wearing white person riding a donkey. The poster reads We're a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and it is not okay. A young, unsmiling, Asian woman looks down at a picture of a white person dressed as a stereotypical Geisha. The poster reads We're a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and it is not okay.

Just in case any of you are out there wondering, “But no one actually does this, right?” Just click through some of the links above to see negative comments on Tumblr (plenty of people are willing to defend their choices to “dress up”) or read the comments beneath coverage of the STARS posters (smoke might come out your ears, just a warning). Halloween costumes should be scary-frightening, not scary racist. It’s important not just to pat yourself on the back for avoiding appropriation, but to reach out to others to follow suit (…literally!). Give “How to inform a friend their Halloween costume is racist,” posted on The Sexist last year, another read-through, and don’t forget to pass along the excellent STARS posters! Links in this post:

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by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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32 Comments Have Been Posted

What a great organization &

What a great organization & well-designed ( and needed) posters. Makes me proud to be an OU alum!

I think we need to

I think we need to differentiate between "dressing up" as racist stereotypes that demean a population (i.e. black face, aunt jemima, watermelon, fried chicken) and dressing up as character or portrayal of a historical/artistic/cultural event.

I have read several articles (including the ones you linked to) regarding the commercialization of Dia de los Muertos and the distinction between the holiday and halloween. However I must say I disagree with the wide-sweeping proclamation that sugar skull makeup is racist. La Catrina (the skeleton woman most frequently portrayed in Dia de los Muertos artwork) is not a racist character. Many many artists (including Sylvia Ji) have taken her image and remade it into contemporary artwork. My city (Austin, TX) puts on a Dia de los Muertos parade each year where hundreds of people from the community (of all races) don sugar skull makeup and brightly colored dresses and march through the streets. I've always been fascinated with the culture surrounding Dia de los Muertos (and similiar traditions honoring the dead which are celebrated across the globe). So when I decided to go as La Catrina for halloween, I first consulted several of my hispanic friends. Not a comprehensive group, of course, but these are intelligent people whose opinions I respect. In each case, when I asked if they thought my costume would (or could) be seen as offensive they all said no. In fact, one of them (who is a makeup artists) volunteered to do my makeup for me! The only caution they gave was to not appropriate Catholic imagery (such as a rosary).

I say all this, because as I have stumbled upon those who are strongly opposed to non-hispanics wearing sugar skull makeup it makes me wonder if this is a fringe opinion among the hispanic community or if my costume is really the equivalent of me dressing as a "wetback." Any comments would be greatly appreciated.

Hi Katie... I, for one,

Hi Katie... I, for one, appreciate your thoughtful comment (a lot of the Facebook comments for this same article are just ugh... close-minded and defensive).

I think this article should have been called something else, because it is more about cultural appropriation. While the concepts of cultural appropriation and racism are closely intertwined, a lot of people think "racist" ONLY means "negative caricatures of a race intended to make people feel bad." Clearly, a lot of commenters, including yourself, never meant to make anyone feel bad, so they consider their actions not racist. But they can still be appropriating other cultures, no matter what their intentions were, and that is still harmful. It's not the same as calling someone a racial epithet, but it's harmful.

I think it's great that you asked your friends if they thought your costume would be offensive, but as you admit, they don't represent all Latin@s. Did they grow up celebrating Dia de los Muertos in a serious way, or were they born in Austin into a family that didn't celebrate the holiday? What socioeconomic class were they from? Can they "pass" as white? Which side of I-35 do they live on? All of these factors could affect the answers that you got from your friends. Many people in Austin would not be offended by your costume, but some people would--they just might not happen to be the people that you come into contact with and make friends with.

I find your post to be

I find your post to be another example of exactly the type of judgement this article is supposedly preaching against. Whether someone could "pass" as white or which side of the highway they live on gives them more or less claim to the holiday? Suppose two people are born in the same hospital in Mexico on the same day, then both move to Austin- you are asserting that one of them may have more right to decide whether a costume is offensive depending on their socioeconomic status, their family's percieved 'seriousness' in celebrating the holiday? I find this to be devicisive rather than unifying, and really has no positive effect on society as a whole. And moreover, it's a choice to see someone's attempt at a cultural costume as an ignorant offensive, rather than an interest and affinity for a culture. This widens the divide, rather than using the opportunity to educate someone about things they are obviously interested in but don't know much about.

I guess I chose to be offended by your dumbass comment, huh?

Society is already divided. White people playing dress up by appropriating stereotypical symbols of my culture furthers this divide. Demeaning and diminutizing costumes ARE offensive. Platitudes about unity mean precisely nothing; this is a region of the world in which racism and white supremacy are so firmly ingrained in people's mindsets that there are thinking human beings who actually believe that people CHOOSE to be offended by the trivialization of people who aren't white Americans.

Lines of communication have been open on our end for centuries, ever since white people first shambled off of their coffin ships, and it's white America who has always refused to listen, so...

Go f*** yourself. I couldn't give a damn if you don't see a problem with it. My culture's garb is not a f***ing costume, and if people are interested and want an education, I suggest a trip to the goddamn library.

Stay pressed, whitey.

I feel like the sweeping

I feel like the sweeping generalization that all white people think Dia De Los Muertos is "mexican halloween" is racist. Being raised in Los Angeles, coming from an Irish background, my friends (most of whom are first or second generation Mexican or Central American) tease that I am "their adopted latina"; because the traditions, celebrations, and culture that I have been exposed to and raised with comes from the Mexican and Central American communities that I have been apart of. The only Irish culture I am exposed to comes from Saint Patrick's Day, which I could argue the exact same argument about the gross distortion of that holiday. I celebrate Dia De Los Muertos, I have made altars for my loved ones for years, and I paint my face along with everyone else on Olvera Street and join the procession in the evening. No one has ever said I shouldn't be there because I'm white until now, ironically in an article that's supposed to be anti-racist.

the day when I no longer have

the day when I no longer have to hear confused interpretations of racism that reference the plight of the Irish. You think the Irish are oppressed? How many former presidents were Irish? More than half, if you're wondering.

White people, including the poor benighted Irish, are not oppressed. Calling out appropriative white people for commodifying the traditions, regalia, and religious beliefs of people of colour isn't racist, either.

There is no such thing as reverse racism. There is absolutely no way that making you feel bad about appropriative behaviour is anywhere near the oppression and subjugation suffered by People of Colour, throughout the world, for centuries.

Why do white people always feel like they have to make everything about their feelings? Here's a clue: no one gives a shit about your feelings. Take solace in the fact that you belong to a demographic currently sitting squarely atop the social hierarchy.

Irish people are not

Irish people are not oppressed? Do me a favour and wake up. Irish people have been the subject of genocide by the British for centuries. While we're on the topic... Halloween is a CELTIC holiday called samhain (pronounced sawayne) that has been appropriated and commercialised by Americans. By all of your arguments, anyone who dresses up for 'halloween' is engaging in cultural procurement of the celtic nations (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany). I can easily argue that Samhain is a culture, not a costume... but I don't, because at some point you have to stop being a victim.

hear hear

Not all white people...

I don't think the author was suggesting that ALL white people think that Dia de los Muertos is "Mexican Halloween," but a large number do. Not everyone grew up in L.A. surrounded by first- and second-generation Mexican and Central American friends, like you did. But I think it's really, really important to keep this in mind:

..."but is also an act of appropriation in which someone who does not experience that oppression is able to "play," temporarily, an "exotic" other, without experience any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures." [from the first paragraph.]

Yes, you grew up in L.A., surrounded by Mexican/Central American culture. But, at the end of the day, you are still white. When you go to the grocery store, when you apply for a job, and when a cop pulls you over, you're still white. So regardless of everything else, you have a social privilege that your Mexican American friends do not - your whiteness. You do not experience the same racial oppressions that they do, and it's important to keep that in mind when you start talking about what "rights" you have to other cultures festivals and rituals.

I'm not telling you not to celebrate Dia De Los Muertos, and I don't think that's what the author is saying, either. The point is just to think about it, and every time you put that face paint on, or make up that altar, just be really, really sure you're not exotifying and fetishizing this "other" culture which seems much more exciting and different than plain old boring mainstream U.S. culture.

And I have to agree with ayiman, as well. Irish people do not experience racial oppression, though they are every white hipsters favorite red herring to pull out of their bag. People are not "read" as Irish, as they are "read" as Black, or Hispanic, Arabic or Asian. And, lets be careful how we use the word "racist." Racism is about oppression, it's not about hurt feelings, or even hatred. There is a difference between prejudice and racism/sexism/ableism/classism/etc, and we can't use them interchangeably.

So apparently this website

So apparently this website cannot just be for women in general, it has to be SEVERELY racially divided. I only mentioned being Irish to make a point that I'm not exactly surrounded by the culture I was born into, but people read wayyyyyy into that. I am also severely physically disabled with burns on over 60% of my body so I'm not really white, I'm more like a pink-brown mix, like a bunny. So when it comes to knowing about oppression, I know plenty about it- first hand. I know about not getting a job because of my appearance or perceived limitations, I know plenty. I did not mention the Irish roots to refer to oppression, I don't need to go back that far- but just to be historically accurate, it's laughable that some of you denied the Irish being oppressed- it shows your ignorance about other cultures. Only caring about the people that you perceive to be "your people" makes you no better than the Whitey that you hate so much. It's hard to defend your point about racism when you are so quick on the trigger to trivialize someone else's culture.

Which goes right back to my point on my initial post- People who want to find reasons to be offended or to hate will always find a reason. I CHOOSE not to be offended by other people's ignorance about my appearance or condition. I CHOOSE to take the time to educate those that want to learn. And I give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they may just be misinformed and not necessarily trying to hurt me. Because I'm only responsible for my actions, and my character.

Just as a hypothetical: Yoga in America has been generally watered down from its original roots in India. So is everyone who goes to a yoga studio exploiting the culture, doing it for kicks just to pretend to be something they're not? Should people not be allowed to gain the benefits of yoga because they were not born into the culture, don't understand the history or the spiritual implications? Many people started by taking a class at the gym, then became intrigued by it, wanted to learn more, and now fully understand and respect the rich and deep history. Some people don't- it remains just a gym class. So my point is, how does it do any good to stigmatize cross-culturalism? Are you saying that the message should be 'stick with your own kind'? If so, where does that leave us in terms of looking towards the future. Is our only option to say that people are divided, always will be, and that there's no point in changing?

..."but is also an act of

..."but is also an act of appropriation in which someone who does not experience that oppression is able to "play," temporarily, an "exotic" other, without experience any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures." [from the first paragraph.]

I just have to point out once again the divisiveness that seems to be the focus here. The statement above requires an assumption that the person does not know oppression. Suppose you see a white woman, not disabled like me, but in great shape, attractive, with money, and she's dressed like a traditional Geisha. And you assume- that white bitch, she thinks its just a fun costume, she doesn't even know about the oppression those women faced!

Well, how do you know she wasn't raped by her dad for her entire childhood, how do you know she wasn't beaten for speaking out against the men in her family? How do you know that she doesn't know suffering? How do you know she's casually playing as an "exotic other", and not celebrating, in her own way, her sameness with other women who have come before her. I find it amazing that readers of a feminist publication don't believe that women of any color- yes the dreaded *white* (gasp) included- can experience severe oppression, discrimination, and abuse.

I feel like there's an insistence among the commenters here that the badge of oppression is owned exclusively by specific cultures and races, and that there is no interest in exploring the ways that we CAN understand each other through personal experience. It makes me think of when two little kids run up to their mom with skinned knees, fighting over who has the bigger, more painful cut.

Two cents

There is so much I could say here...I have no desire to offend or attack you-let's just put that out there. I *do* feel the need to say that there is no category of "women in general." We are all very different, for many reasons. Solidarity does not have to mean a denial of difference, rather, it can include a critical consciousness of how we are all uniquely shaped by our histories, and how we need to respect each other's experiences. That means when someone brings up concern about cultural appropriation, or a concern that is deeply rooted in personal identity, it would do us all good to listen. It is one thing to take a class on a different culture, to attempt to learn, and another to appropriate and try to live another identity vicariously while still holding on to privilege. It is also worth saying that privilege is contextual-it comes in many forms, and while always connected to history, isn't static transhistorically. Intersectional identities mean we can simultaneously occupy positions of privilege and disempowerment. These multiple intersections also mean that I might know what it feels like to be discriminated against as a white-appearing, able-bodied, biracial woman, but I cannot speak to the experience of other intersectional identities. This being the case, I cannot make assumptions about what should or should not be offensive to others-I have to take on the responsibility of learning that, and of listening.

As far as choosing to be offended, let me offer my own hypothetical (though I acknowledge there is a danger in that). If a woman gets an obscene comment while trying to walk to work, is she choosing to be offended? Or is she merely acknowledging the significance of this everyday experience as a small example of her "place" in a larger culture, one that devalues her identity on a day-to-day basis?

" These multiple

" These multiple intersections also mean that I might know what it feels like to be discriminated against as a white-appearing, able-bodied, biracial woman, but I cannot speak to the experience of other intersectional identities. This being the case, I cannot make assumptions about what should or should not be offensive to others-I have to take on the responsibility of learning that, and of listening."

I totally agree with you here. The main point I wanted to make is that it isn't enough to stop at our own personal understanding of our culture and what is personally offensive to us without extending that same respect to others- all others, without judgement of whether they have a 'valid' culture or experience. Differing opinions occur even within the same cultures, so we have to listen, accept the validity of each person's view point, and then find the best balance between that and our own path.

In response to your hypothetical, it's my opinion that the women can do both- she can acknowledge this as a small example of how the larger culture devalues her identity, and then she can make a choice whether to allow this to offend her or not. My opinion may be greatly influenced by the weight I place on the word 'offend'. It is a strong verb- as something that can happen to you, as an invader, I feel that we have the choice whether or not to be invaded by something, although we can still acknowledge it, understand it, and allow it to inform our actions.

I looked at the photos in some of the links, especially the college ones, and they are scathingly ignorant and certainly either meant to be offensive, or without regard to whom they may offend. I am not arguing for these people. My reaction was mainly toward the comments below the article. Flamenco dance is a beautiful illustration of how a culture changes and picks up various qualities of different cultures when travel is involved. In today's world, physical travel is not even necessary, as people are connecting over social media. Not every instance of blending of cultures is negative appropriation. That is the main point I wanted to throw out there.

I really appreciated your

I really appreciated your comments. I come from a different cultural background and am not even from the US, but I recognize a lot of what you told. Political Correctness often is just that: correct, as in the right thing.

Unfortunately, it sometimes changes into thaughtpolice, stopping any discussion before it even starts and judging people for bringing something up in the first place instead of addressing the points raised.

I could give further examples from my own context, but those are redundant. You basically said everything I would like to say, so thanks for saving me some time.

I appreciate the gesture, but...

To live in the echoes of another's past is to die in your present. Every individual has their own journey in life, some more bittersweet than others, and to take that away or to convince them otherwise is no less cruel that setting a hungry pack of wolves upon them and doing nothing...

So Lets Go For a Vanilla Society Then

Well brilliant! Let's all just walk around in grey shirts with grey pants and say nothing so that we don't offend anyone at all shall we!? That's pretty much what you have to do these days to fit in with the endless campaigns against offending endless groups of people, generally created by people outside of the groups they are campaigning for!
I don't advocate people being allowed to do what those nutjobs at Westboro do when they insult and attack the group they wish to offend in person but what the hell is wrong with a few people enjoying themselves at a party by dressing up as the stereotypical representation of something? I bet 90+ % of them would not actually go up to someone and treat them as their stereotypical representation in real life so when did it become so bad to have a joke about something?
Society really needs to lighten up - or there will be more people bored out of their minds by not being able to release and have some fun who go and cap themselves as a result.


I hardly think refraining from racist cultural appropriation on Halloween will turn this into a "vanilla" society, unless you're using the word vanilla to mean "not racist." There are PLENTY of ways to have fun on Halloween without dressing as another culture or ethnicity in a dehumanizing manner. How about you try not doing it and see how it goes? I seriously doubt that leaving the offensive costume at home this year and dressing like something else will bore people "out of their minds."

if what you people are saying

if what you people are saying is true, why am i not offended when i see someone wearing lederhosen during oktoberfest ? i'm of german ancestry.

Not every group needs PR

Not every group needs PR damage control.

How many more of these stupid

How many more of these stupid campaigns telling me what not to say, do, or think are there going to be?


That depends on how long people keep up their racist, sexist, and dehumanizing behavior. If you want the "stupid campaigns" to stop this might be a good time to educate yourself.

Wow, lots of unchecked white

<p>Wow, lots of unchecked white privilege being thrown around in this thread.</p>
<p>By the way, the Irish may be oppressed by the British, but they are not oppressed <em>for being Irish</em> in the US. This post is about <em>the celebration of Halloween in the US</em>. There is a history of anti-Irish sentiment in the US, but it has dissipated in a way that racial hatred has not. Irish folks did not start out in the US classified or seen as "white," but they certainly are now. This is ridiculous handwringing.</p>

Utterly disgusted by this

Utterly disgusted by this thread. Where did you all come from anyway? 4chan? Or is the Bitch commenting community usually dominated by this many racist assholes?

BTW, you know it's something

<p>BTW, you know it's something speical when you start to sound <a title="Limbaugh: Obama Promotes Only Those Who Hate White People" href="" target="_blank">worse than this guy</a>. Seriously, that's when you know you need to STFU. I'm deleting the next racist comment and moderating this until the editors get to the office. Not sure what their policy is on deleting comments that have already gotten out there, but until they get in, I'm deleting anymore of this shit that comes up.</p>

Cultural Appropriation at Halloween--I Never Thought!

Wow, this is amazing! And I love that it is done within the context of Halloween. We see Western media and popular culture appropriate various cultures and use them to promote negative, derogatory, and ultimately racist stereotypes. But Halloween, I now realize, also provides the potential to do this!


My apologies to those of you leaving thoughtful comments for not moderating some of the racist, defensive, awful comments on this thread until now (and thanks Kristin for stepping in)—Bitch is in Portland so I just got up.

To those of you using this space to defend your "right" to be a racist asshole this Halloween: Your comments will be deleted. This is not the place for that debate—we've already established, as Kjerstin says in her post, that it is NOT OK to dress up in a culturally appropriative manner. This comments section is for discussion, not racial slurs and pile-ons.

If these staggeringly unchecked-privilege-ridden comments continue I will turn off comments on this thread. Please read our comments policy and take a second to think before you type.

To those of you not being awful: Thanks!

>>it is NOT OK to dress up in

>>it is NOT OK to dress up in a culturally appropriative manner

What is "a culturally appropriative manner"?I'm not trying to be a dick, but I seriously have no idea what that means.

A good place to start...

Would be reading the blog post and the links Kjerstin provided.

Who is the lender of that power?

Wait a second - who decides something like "it is NOT OK to dress up in a culturally appropriative manner"? Is Bitch Media the sole authority on who or what is tasteful and what is not? Is it ok for my son to dress up like a NBA basketball player (uh oh, he wants to dress up like Kevin Durant - a black player!) or should I explain to him that Bitch Media doesn't like that because it's culturally appropriative?

While we are on the subject, what do you fine folks think about the move "White Girls"? Surely you've heard about that one.

That should read *movie*, my

That should read *movie*, my apologies.

Also - why are all of your advertising messages featuring white people dressing up to "offend" these people with the stereotypes? I am an Asian and people dressing up as a Ninjas, Samurai, and Pokemon have never offended me or my own.

uh as long as you're not

uh as long as you're not applying blackface to your son, it'll probably be fine

Didn't I see this type of thread already with SlutWalk?

Good lord. The moment you tell someone they shouldn't do something because it is wildly inappropriate or culturally insensitive it is usually those who are Caucasian that are up in arms about it. A good parallel is the whole "The Woman is the N***** of the World" debate that was sparked at the last Slut Walk. Of course they didn't intend to offend anyone, but intent is kind of a moot point when it comes to these things. It undercuts the (mostly, I find some other elements problematic) positive goals of it. Probably a better example for people to understand is the recent "Hot Chicks" at Occupy Wallstreet. We see that it is blatantly sexist and are trying to call people out on it, but what do they say? It is unnecessarily divisive and pulls away from the ultimate economic/social justice message. This happened with women of color in the suffrage movement, the Civil Rights era and so on. We need to move past the "get over it, you are deferring away from the main goal/message" and try to be more inclusive overall.

Obviously there is no standard rule that states what is offensive and what is not, although people are quick to mock Bitch as the proprietor of it, but I think the point is to just stop and think outside of yourself.