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Cultural appropriation on Halloween: there are no longer any excuses

ByMatthew Sedman

Oct 29, 2018

As Halloween fast approaches and cobwebs begin to emerge through the damp autumnal mist, shops up and down the country are beginning to stock up on a plethora of fancy dress costumes – many of which, unfortunately, are appropriative. A quick search online reveals a multitude of subpages entitled ‘Around the World’, in which ‘Day of the Dead’, ‘Native Beauty’ and ‘Balthasar of Arabia’ costumes are commonplace.

It is important to remember that in a modern context, Halloween for many serves as a day of fun. Whilst it roots do indeed lie within ancient Celtic ritual, it would be somewhat far-fetched to assert that the trick-or-treaters around Marchmont enmesh themselves within the ceremonial aspect and symbols of Paganism. Instead, Halloween affords the average member of society the opportunity to dress up and engorge themselves on a variety of pumpkin-spiced delicacies.

Día de Muertos – the inspiration of the ‘Day of the Dead’ costume – is a sacred holiday for many Mexicans that celebrates the lives of lost loved ones. It holds a personal and sentimental significance as a staple of Mexican culture and by wearing the skull masks of La Catrina (perhaps the most emblematic icon of the festivities) is to isolate the part of Mexican heritage that holds aesthetic value in a western context and to commodify it. The skull motifs and artwork so inherent to Día de Muertos are not simply a gimmick that can be removed from its wider context and applied with face paint.

Cultural appropriation through fancy dress undermines the heritage of marginalised communities through the fetishisation of their dress and plays on historic rhetoric that saw colonial countries disregard the humanity of foreign and ‘other’ societies. When a community is dehumanised, its culture is opened up as a pick-and-mix, whose cultural elements are available for display in a western cabinet of curiosities without the moral dilemmas of ethnocentric imposition.

Nowadays, this translates as a member of a more privileged social group adopting the traditions of a typically more oppressed social group through their choice of fancy dress – a framework that serves to reproduce the hierarchical and outdated structures of society past.

Of course, the quip frequently made in spite of this is that Halloween costumes from the ‘Around the World’ section are worn in a display of cultural appreciation and seek to honour the communities that are otherwise underrepresented in mainstream culture. But once again, Halloween nowadays is a day of fun and cannot be used as an opportunity in which to display solidarity, nor its dress the medium. Wearing such an outfit, in whatever intention, is to make a caricature out of someone’s everyday reality.

It is a sad reality of life that society is founded on an intricate system of social orders and unjust hierarchies. Fancy dress can very often be a form of illumination on hidden status markers. Halloween can be a terrifying affair – but let the fear of ghouls and ghosts be the reason for your held breath: not the adoption of an offensive costume.  

Image Credit: Andrew Milligan sumo via Flickr

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