Will Halloween be canceled? What costumes will be culturally appropriate amid racial reckoning

"People are viewing race through a different lens right now."

July 22, 2020, 4:04 AM

Halloween is three months away -- and seemingly a world away amid the coronavirus pandemic -- but is already a topic of conversation when it comes to what costumes will be appropriate this year.

"It’s now about Halloween in July," said Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. "People are already starting to talk about Halloween and what it may look like this year and how it might be a little more fraught in this particular cultural moment."

This year, Halloween will come not only in the middle of a pandemic that could see costume parties go virtual and trick-or-treating take new forms, but it also comes in an election year and, most consequentially, in the midst of a reckoning on race relations in the United States.

The death of George Floyd in May at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests and real conversations about race and what it means to be a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) in America.

"Ever since the death of George Floyd we’ve seen so many changes and people reconsidering institutional racism," said Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez, a professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor University. "People are viewing race through a different lens right now, so now when you choose a costume, you’re going to have to look at it through a different lens."

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is perennially an issue at Halloween, and this year experts predict it will be so more than ever.

The term is defined as the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of another and typically more dominant culture, according to Moody-Ramirez, also the author of "From Blackface to Black Twitter: Reflections on Black Humor, Race, Politics, & Gender."

"It's when dominant culture adopts something without showing respect or understanding for that culture, and it’s usually when the dominant culture gains financially from that adoption," she said. "[They're able to gain something by adopting elements from a marginalized group but they're not giving back to that culture."

The term cultural appropriation comes from the academic world but it has "catapulted" into popular more recently, according to Scafidi, the author of "Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law."

The poster campaign, “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume," that launched a hashtag, #CultureNotaCostume, that is widely used today to call out potentially offensive costumes, was launched at Ohio University in 2011, according to Scafidi.

In recent years, stars including Florence Pugh have apologized for past incidents of cultural appropriation, while stars from Kim Kardashian West to Jennifer Lawrence have faced claims of cultural appropriation and backlash.

Scafidi points out though, that not all cultural appropriation is necessarily a bad thing and there is a "spectrum" to it.

"As the term has entered the popular culture it’s gone from being descriptive to being judgmental," she said. "I like to think of cultural misappropriation on the one end of the spectrum versus cultural inspiration [or appreciation] on the other end."

Moody-Ramirez agrees there are "different levels" to cultural appreciation, noting that "you can borrow from these cultures if you're actually celebrating or showing honor for that culture."

What is appropriate and what's not for Halloween?

A person choosing a Halloween costume should consider what Scafidi calls "the three S's": Source significance and similarity.

She shared the following questions to ask yourself for each word.

Source: "What’s the source of the cultural item being appropriated? Is it a culture that has been discriminated against and historically oppressed and is still feeling those effects? If so, proceed with caution."

Significance: "Are you taking something that is broadly commodified, just an ordinary, everyday item or is it highly significant, maybe even sacred or secret?"

Similarity: "Is what you’re copying or imitating an exact line-to-line copy or is it just general inspiration?"

Both Scafidi and Moody-Ramirez recommend imagining ahead of time different scenarios where you could come face-to-face with a person while dressed in your Halloween costume.

"Imagine yourself showing up to visit your friend’s mom dressed in costume and if your friend’s mom or grandma would disapprove, then maybe there’s a better choice for you," said Scafidi. "And if you have to ask, maybe there’s a better choice out there."

"I tell people to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, a person of color. If you go trick-or-treating and you knock on the door of a person of color, how might that they respond?" said Moody-Ramirez. "If you try to put yourself in their shoes, then probably you’re not going to do it."

A key thing to remember too is whether a costume is poking light at a public figure, like a presidential candidate, or poking fun at someone's heritage, culture or immutable characteristics, like race.

"If there is nothing more terrifying to you than our president, or if Joe Biden is deeply terrifying to you, feel free to dress as them," said Scafidi. "But dressing as anything having to do with the Black Lives Matter movement is probably going to be culturally inappropriate."

Both experts also say to keep context in mind, pointing out that Halloween is a time of mischievousness and fun.

"If an Indian bride wants everyone at her wedding to wear a sari, regardless of background, that’s OK, but not at Halloween when it’s a totally different context," said Scafidi. "[Traditional] costumes have meaning and are significant and the context of Halloween is mischievous and transgressive and sets those costumes alongside demons and slutty pumpkins, which is not necessarily respectful."

To keep it even simpler, Scafidi says to just follow the golden rule of doing unto others as you would want done to you, saying, "Everyone has a culture and everyone wants their culture to be respected."

"If you profoundly wish to offend other people via your dress there is no law preventing you from doing so," she said. "But why would you create that kind of [tension] or drag down an otherwise joyous holiday by offending someone unnecessarily or making someone else feel unwelcome at the party?"

For people who may be afraid to even celebrate Halloween this year amid the tension in the country, Scafidi says Halloween is just what Americans need now, but in a respectful way.

"Halloween for us in modern America is a creative expression and one that we need more than ever right now," she said. "We just need to make sure that everyone is invited to the party and free to participate."

Why is race particularly fraught at Halloween?

If cultural appropriation is on a spectrum, dressing in brown or blackface is about as far towards cultural misappropriation as one can go, experts say.

"Skin color in our society is just not a neutral characteristic. It’s unfortunate," said Scafidi. "If we lived in a perfect world we’d be able to dress as anything we please and as anyone we please, but we don’t live in that perfect world."

The reason blackface is so particularly offensive is that white people have benefited historically from it, explained Moody-Ramirez.

"Blackface is something that builds on something that was done historically and that was very hurtful for Black people historically," she said. "We're still talking about people dressing in blackface today because some people still view Black people through that same lens, as inhuman."

The reason it is not cultural misappropriation when a Black person wears white makeup is because the person being borrowed from -- in this case a white person -- is not the oppressed.

"The difference is Black people didn’t enslave white people. Slaves didn’t mock white people. They didn’t wear white face historically to mock white people and they didn’t benefit historically off white face," said Moody-Ramirez. "Black people were not able to profit off white people."

It's also about the current climate, too. It would be unfair, for example, for a white person to wear dreadlocks as a Halloween costume while Black people are still fighting for protections for their natural hair and hairstyles in cities across the country.

"When Black people wear braids, they might say it's ghetto, but when other people wear them, they say it's beautiful," said Moody-Ramirez. "When Bo Derek wore braids in '10' people said it was beautiful, but Black people couldn't even wear cornrows to work. They'd get sent home."

How to talk to kids about cultural appropriation and costumes

Some of the toughest conversations around cultural appropriation may seem to be with kids, who just want to dress up as their favorite princess or hero for Halloween.

Those are great teachable moments for parents though, say both Scafidi and Moody-Ramirez.

PHOTO: Children's costumes on display at the Spirit Halloween store in Rockville, Md., Oct. 29, 2015, ahead of the Halloween.
Children's costumes on display at the Spirit Halloween store in Rockville, Md., Oct. 29, 2015, ahead of the Halloween.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If your child wanted to dress as Pocahontas, a Native American woman, for example, talk about the Native American culture and the history and why you might not want to dress up as someone from that culture and why someone from that culture might be offended, recommends Moody-Ramirez.

"They may know about the movie, but do they know about the Native American culture?," she said. "Do they really know about that experience and how they were uprooted and forced to move away from their land, and if they knocked on the door of a Native American person, how would that person feel? Unless you know something about that culture, then your child shouldn’t be wearing that costume."

Moody-Ramirez, a mom of two, said even parents can have teachable moments for themselves around Halloween costumes too, today or years from now.

"I remember my son wearing a Ninja costume [part of the Japanese culture] and if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t let him do it," she said. "Once you know better, you do better. Now I know better."

Scafidi recommends talking to kids about potential sensitivities around Halloween costumes in age-appropriate ways, and not when they are in the heat of the moment picking out a costume or putting one on.

"Of course you want to encourage kids to have icons and heroes of all colors and from all backgrounds, but it becomes a teachable moment," she said. "It’s not that a child can’t dress as their favorite multicultural Disney character or superhero, but if they’re going to do so, they need to do so in a way that’s respectful."

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