Every Halloween, people retire their normal attire to personify ghosts, vampires, witches — and sometimes other people’s cultures.
According to Penn State students, Halloween costumes can be a major culprit of cultural appropriation, which can be harmful to marginalized communities.
Egyptian Student Association President Youhanna Meleka said he defines cultural appropriation as “individuals or other groups in society misusing or deliberately undermining another culture by maliciously mocking it in different ways.”
He said cultural appropriation affects the Egyptian community at Penn State like it affects any underrepresented group with prideful heritage on campus. Although he said there haven’t been any major issues in the past few years, he said there is some underlying ignorance about Egyptian culture that can be displayed during Halloween.
“An all-Egyptian costume party that mocks our culture would be considered culturally inappropriate and offensive,” Meleka (junior-industrial engineering) said. “But wearing a pharaoh costume isn’t considered culturally inappropriate if your intention isn’t malicious in terms of portraying hate or undermining Egyptian culture.”
He said Egyptian costumes are acceptable as long as they’re worn with the right intention and frame of thought. However, he said the disrespectful costumes that miss the mark can be harmful to society.
“The impact can be immense because it disengages people whose culture is being mocked by society,” Meleka said. “It builds a sense of tension and discrimination against them.”
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Mexican Student Association President Estefania Ledesma said cultural appropriation often disrespects the Latino community. She has seen this during Halloween with college students dressing up in sombreros and ponchos, or using Day of the Dead costumes — which she said “make a mockery of Mexican culture, traditions and religion.”
“Most of the pieces people like to use for Halloween have a significant historical background for the Latinx community, and to see people disrespect these pieces by using them as costume is really offensive,” Ledesma (senior-veterinary and biomedical sciences) said. “It’s very hard for people to see cultural pieces that have so much historical and religious significance in our home countries be made into a cheap costume.”
She said dressing up as a Latino figure or celebrity is okay, as long as it’s done respectfully.
“Dressing up as your favorite Latinx artist is fine, as long as you don’t try to darken your complexion or talk in an accent,” Ledesma said. “I find it very offensive when people darken their skin for costumes because there’s a huge issue in Latin America where people with darker complexions are mistreated.”
Ledesma said one of the most common occurrences of cultural appropriation she sees in October every year are Day of the Dead costumes with face paint, which she said holds significant religious meaning.
“I find it highly disrespectful and see people in these costumes to be mocking Mexican culture,” Ledesma said. “My people shouldn’t be used as your next Halloween costume.”
President of Black Caucus Nyla Holland said there are so many costumes people can wear that aren’t somebody else’s culture — and that “if it’s questionable, choose something else.”
A major instance of Black cultural appropriation in costumes is people practicing Blackface, which she said includes the darkening of one’s skin tone, doing a stereotypical “Blaccent,” and using Black hairstyles.
“I think if someone is trying to capture the essence of a particular famous figure by not doing the above things, that’s understandable,” Holland (senior-political science and African American studies) said via email. “But it doesn't make sense to be a Black anything if you aren’t Black, because that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.”
Holland emphasized that these costumes are part of a bigger societal issue where people undermine or try to take ownership of Black culture.
“I think one thing cultural appropriation does is gaslight Black people into thinking that our culture, our history and our customs aren’t our own or aren’t culturally significant,” Holland said. “It can whitewash our culture, causing people to be misinformed and perhaps less prideful in our own creations.”
Navajo student and President of the Indigenous People’s Student Association Tim Benally said he sees cultural appropriation of his community in the profitization and romanization of Indigenous people by non-natives.
He said there are numerous examples of people mocking Indigenous culture in society, whether it be team’s mascots, in history classes or with Halloween costumes.
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Benally (senior-psychology) said headdresses are often popular during Halloween, but that many people who wear them as part of a costume have no knowledge of their actual meaning.
“Each piece of the headdress represents a ceremonial accomplishment or sign of bravery that I doubt many kids have considered, let alone earned enough to wear,” Benally said via email. “It’s a sign of great disrespect when any feather touches the floor.”
Another costume he said he’s always upset to see is “sexy Pocahontas.” According to Indian Country Today, Pocahontas was around 10 years old when she met John Smith, who was around 27. Benally said costumes like this continue to wrongfully sexualize Native American women and children, which is an issue on reservations today.
“Native American women get disproportionately stolen, raped and assaulted at a higher rate than any other demographic, which is why there’s a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement,” Benally said. “It breaks my heart to see people perpetuating the sexualization of Native women who I know have endured some of the hardest realities American history has to offer.”
Although people might not think Halloween costumes hold much weight, Benally said costumes mocking marginalized groups contribute to an ignorance about their culture and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
“As a Native person, I feel that many of my non-native peers love romanticizing Native concepts but are extremely quick to disassociate about the real history that my ancestors have endured through generations and continue to endure today,” Benally said. “It’s dehumanizing and there’s no excuse when you are only accepting what you like about a person and unwilling to face the realities of how you contribute to the struggles of their people.”