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Feminspire | July 13, 2014

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Dear Cultural Appropriators: Stop! Love, Halloween

Dear Cultural Appropriators: Stop! Love, Halloween
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Dear ‘old-timey Mexicans’ in oversized sombreros, ‘sexy Indians’ with feathers in your hair, and white people in turbans,

No. Just no.

I can’t believe I actually have to tell you this, but I never gave you a one-day pass to wear whatever you want, no matter how offensive.

Seriously, stop it.

Don’t tell me you can’t think of anything better than a gift shop kimono and a tub of white face paint. Is that the best you could do? I’ve seen how painfully politically correct you are the other 364 days of the year. Are you just tired of hiding your latent racism, or is your costume an attempt at some sort of ironic social commentary? Either way, fail. Not the time.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, I love costumes. For centuries, people have been dressing up for me and I truly appreciate the effort. But I don’t appreciate my day being used as an excuse to discriminate. Putting a towel on your head and telling everyone you’re a terrorist is not clever, creative, or crafty (all the components of a Halloween costume worthy of my name), it’s offensive. Every time you pull that crap, you look like a racist idiot and you give me a bad reputation.

Work with me here. As holidays go, I’m pretty down-to-earth. I give you changing leaves and apple cider, hayrides and corn mazes, jack-o-lanterns and ghost stories. I won’t empty your bank account, make you spend time with distant relatives, or force feed you Peeps. All I ask in return is that you stop treating me like a costume ball of cultural insensitivity.

It’s bad enough that the horror movies you make for me relegate people of color to play the first-to-die backdrop behind the wise white heroes. (Don’t even get me started on how you treat women in my genre.) But parading around town as a drunk ‘Aunt Jemima’ is crossing the line. If your goal is to subordinate people of color—the ultimate effect of culturally appropriating costumes—you might as well save yourself some time, just Sharpie the N-word on a t-shirt, and call it a day. When people ask you who you are, tell them you decided to dress up as your inner racist.

Or don’t. (If you’re dense and insensitive enough to think an ‘ethnic’ costume is anything other than a slur in fabric form, you probably didn’t catch my sarcasm.) Let me spell it out for you. Cultural appropriation is not okay. Not only does it kill the mood of your favorite fall festival, it is genuinely painful, marginalizing, and oppressive for the human beings you pretend to portray. If that’s what you and your friends are going for with your ‘chop suey specs’ and ‘sugar skull’ makeup, you can skip the horror movies this year because your Halloween party will be scary enough.

If, as Mark Twain said, “clothes make the man” (or woman), what do your Hallow’s Eve clothes make you? An imperialistic jerk with a chip on your (‘funky tribal’ painted) shoulder, or a compassionate advocate for non-offensive fall fun (with a bit more of an imagination)? I’m asking you, in the name of pumpkins and taffy apples, have a heart. Stop ruining my special day and leave your blackface where it belongs—in the distant past.

Warm regards,


Written by Rachael Kay Albers

Opinions expressed in our editorials belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of Feminspire or its staff as a whole.

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  • Shoshanna Lee van Leeuwen

    I thought sugar-skull makeup was just to be an interesting skeleton–I mean, I know the association with the day of the dead, but I thought the point of makeup like that was to appreciate the culture in a non-offensive way, like without mocking it… I always thought sugar-skull looked cool…

    • Girlicious


    • Allison Hrabar

      It’s not that it is mocking Mexican culture, it’s that there is a lack of understanding of what that “sugar skull” make up actually means. It means more than a fun skeleton. My culture is NOT a costume.

      • Shoshanna Lee van Leeuwen

        I wasn’t trying to suggest it is, sorry to offend; I just meant that I didn’t know why it was bad. Thank you for explaining.

        • Allison

          Totally cool. Hope you have a lovely, non-appropriative Halloween!

          • Shoshanna Lee van Leeuwen

            I’ll just say this now: I was never one for cultural appropriation, and, even if I thought it looked cool, I never did sugar skull. I just liked the bright colours and stuff. I honestly hate when they try “Mexican culture” at my school because it’s ALWAYS sugar skull and they act really rude and inappropriate about it

          • Helen

            I had to google sugar skull to find out what this is and hey, I actually have a sugar skull tank top from h&m.. had no idea what that actually meant. I bought it for a hippie costume party :P

          • Allison

            Yeah, there is a line between being cool about it and disrespecting it. My home town does an All Soul’s Procession every year and I don’t find it appropriative because it is run by people from the culture and there is always a lot of respect and celebration involved with it. I’m actually very sad about missing it this year, it’s a great time for the Latino community.

          • Shoshanna Lee van Leeuwen

            My school definition is “Make a white teacher tell you to make masks and also you’re going to get sent to the office if you so much as disagree on the colours.”

    • Emmett Doyle

      I never knew the Day of the Dead tradition- but then, I’ve only ever seen one sugar skull makeup.

  • Rhiannon Payne

    I love this!! Amazing first article, Rachael <3

    • Rachael Kay Albers

      So glad to be part of such an inspiring group of women.

  • Sully

    At my alma mater, a white guy dresses like a Seminole, rides a horse across the football field, and sticks a spear in the ground every football game. The fact that our mascot is a Native American makes me uncomfortable, especially since the only time I’ve ever heard a discussion of how that’s inappropriate has been in a rhetorical criticism class. No one ever seems to stop and think about it. So offensive cultural appropriation is not only reserved to Halloween.

    • Rachael Kay Albers

      I totally agree! The university in the state of Illinois famously has a Native American chief as its mascot–Chief Illiniwek–and up until a few years ago, the “Chief” (usually a white college dude) would dance like an idiot at football games and baseketball games while wearing a headdress. My family, along with thousands of other alumni, was HORRIFIED that THEY had to “sacrifice” their beloved chief to be “politically correct.” This topic was my entrance into the cultural appropriation discussion and I STILL can’t believe that Native American culture is treated this way by mainstream society. Boo :-(

  • nikki

    I don’t think dressing up in clothes from another culture is racist. In fact I think that thinking it’s racist is racist. Of course, if someone dresses up in a kimono and starts making offensive remarks about Japan, then it’s racist, but if they dress up because they’re interested in Japanese culture or even if they think it’s aesthetically pleasing then what’s the harm? I’m Irish, and every 17th of March people wear red wigs and green suits putting on “leprechaun” accents and I don’t think it’s offensive, it’s just a bit of fun. (Even the English celebrate by dressing in green and drinking pints and they weren’t exactly kind to the Irish in the past, but most of us have put that behind us and let the English celebrate our culture with us)

    When it is done the right way, it actually shows appreciation for other cultures, not racism. When are we going to stop pulling the race card and realise that the concept of race is a man-made illusion – there is only one race of humans on this world – the human race.

    • Rachael Kay Albers

      Nikki, one of the main reasons I wrote this article is because of the many people whose paths have crossed mine who have expressed feelings of being offended, hurt, insulted, and denigrated because of cultural appropriation–not only on Halloween but in any way. My boyfriend is Mexican and refuses to dress up for Halloween because of the nasty, offensive costumes of tequila-soaked, sombrero-wearing Mexicans he has seen at various parties throughout his life. Earlier this year, Paul Frank hosted a “Native American themed Dream Catcher party” where celebrs, models, etc. dressed up as “indians” wearing feathers and fluorescent warpaint–PLENTY of Native Americans cried out about how insulting this was to their culture. No, this was not Halloween, and in my opinion, Halloween is just a great opportunity to address cultural appropriation in its many forms. I do agree with you that there are tasteful, respectful ways to pay homage to other cultures but this article was directed more towards the people who say “I’m going to be Chinese for Halloween!” and then paint their eyes and think they are hilarious when they say, “Me go pee pee in your Coke!” all night. :-/

      • nikki

        Okay, well…I agree that would be thinly veiled racism. But if someone dressed as a famous historical Chinese figure because they admired them I don’t think it would be so bad. I’ve never really experienced any racist halloween costumes…usually people here go as fictional characters, mythical creatures or vampires/monsters…(or the tacky, degrading “slutty” option).

        I actually thought your article was very well written and informative. I never really realised that other cultures might be offended by Indian feathers and sugar-skull face paint. I still do think it’s possible to embrace their cultures without being racist though.

        • Rachael Kay Albers

          I think you make a great point, Nikki and I never really thought it from that angle :-) Thanks!

      • Melissa De Sa

        I fully agree with your points. But your last fake-Chinese made me spit out my drink.

  • Nikki

    Also, don’t forget that the entire festival of Halloween belongs to MY (Celtic) culture. So if you’re going to stop wearing feathers to not offend Native Americans, and if your not going to do sugar skull face-paint so you won’t offend Mexicans, then you should stop celebrating the whole holiday because it was originally a Celtic festival and I could easily claim that you’re offending us by celebrating it.

    • Abigail Lewis

      You could claim that, but would it be genuine? Both of your comments come from the premise that you WOULDN’T be offended by people dressing up as leprechauns/Irish people – even the English. That is wonderful for you, and it’s great that you think that expands your enjoyment of March 17th and makes it a more inclusive holiday etc. But just because you’re okay with it, doesn’t mean every Irish person is. You can’t speak for every Irish person, let alone Japanese people or people of Native American descent. And while you have every right to express your view that you enjoy having people of different nationalities celebrate your culture with you, you can’t really tell people of different races or even other people of your culture how to react.

      • nikki

        Fair point, but I just think that this is one of those examples of people being too “politically correct”, most of whom aren’t even from the culture they’re trying to defend. I’m just saying, if you think that (innocently) dressing up as someone from another culture or time is offensive, then you shouldn’t celebrate Halloween at all, since it could be considered as a mockery of the ancient Celtic tradition “Samhain”. I don’t see the problem with embracing other cultures. I think telling someone that they can’t wear “sugar-skull” makeup or dress up as a Native American because they’re “too white” actually perpetuates racism.

        • Abigail Lewis

          I don’t see a problem with embracing other cultures either, if you are welcomed into them! But a white American dressing as a native American when their ancestors killed them all? Is it ever appropriate to dress as the victims of a genocide?

          • nikki

            I don’t think it’s fair to blame Americans for what their ancestors did. Nobody today had anything to do with the native American genocide. In fact, a large proportion of ‘white’ Americans probably have native American ancestors.

          • Abigail Lewis

            I’m not blaming current Americans for what their ancestors did. I’m saying it’s insensitive to dress up as the victims of a genocide regardless of when the genocide was. And even more insensitive if your race was on the perpetrating end of the genocide.

          • lianegraham

            I don’t know, every Halloween party I’ve ever been to has had some jerk in a Chassidic Rabbi costume.

          • Abigail Lewis

            wait, i’m confused. are you saying you think that’s appropriate?!

          • Emmett Doyle

            Yeah, and that needs to *stop*.

          • Zerbertina

            Not every white American’s ancestors were here before the 20th century.

        • Emmett Doyle

          Yeah, but Samhain evolved into Halloween within the context of our own culture- it was the Celts that converted to Christianity, and contrary to neopagan victimization fantasies, that conversion was largely peaceful. Halloween coming out of Samhain was an expression of that culture, and was celebrated as Halloween prior to British colonialism. Its spread to the mainstream Anglo culture after English protestantism tried to stamp it out, happened not because they dominated the Irish, but because the Irish slowly stopped being so marginalized and their customs became more accepted as part of mainstream American culture.

          So, while I agree that the idea of cultural ownership of something can be problematic, I think we also need to recognize that there are very different circumstances at work here. Irish-Americans are not a marginalized class and haven’t been for some time- really, at least since the early to mid 1900s. That can’t be said of non-white Americans. Moreover, Halloween was shared fairly freely by Irish-Americans and Scottish-Americans with other white Americans, whereas Native Americans have long decried the use of headresses as a costume piece. Finally, Halloween is only marginally a religious holiday- its roots are in a dead religion (reconstructionists aside) and its present role as ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ is meaningless because very few people celebrate All Saint’s Day any more, so the secularized Halloween is the main current. That’s different from Dia De Los Muertos or from the headress, both of which still carry significant cultural and religious importance.

          • Nikki

            ” because the Irish slowly stopped being so marginalized”

            Firstly, you’re not Irish, you’re American.

            The Irish were marginalised for a *long* time after the conversion to Christianity.

            Also, many Catholics still celebrate “All Saints Day” and disagree with the notion of people dressing up as ghosts and evil spirits on Halloween as it can be deemed offensive to Christianity.

          • Emmett Doyle

            “Firstly, you’re not Irish, you’re American. The Irish were marginalised for a *long* time after the conversion to Christianity.”

            Like all Irish-Americans, I am part of the Irish diaspora. My point was, the Irish, whether in Ireland or ethnically Irish but of other nationality, are not a marginalized group. Moreover, the marginalization of the Irish was never due to the conversion to Christianity. It was due to the colonial rule of the British- a rule that is now ended over the majority of the country, save the part that has voted to remain British.

            As for Catholics being offended by Halloween: Well, other Catholics disagree strongly and love Halloween. A minority of uber-Catholics do not speak for the entire Church. The Vatican has never once issued any definitive statement on Halloween, and the traditions we know grew largely out of folk-Catholicism retooling older traditions. So, I would strongly dispute that ‘many Catholics’ find it offensive. *Some* Catholics who make up a tiny fringe of the Church find it offensive while almost every other Catholic loves it as much as the rest of the world.

            At any rate, again, Catholics aren’t exactly a downtrodden and oppressed group.

      • Emmett Doyle

        To be fair, as an Irish-American, *I* get offended when people dress up as leprechauns and get roaring drunk for Saint Patrick’s Day, but many other Irish-Americans don’t and I’ve met nobody who gets offended by non-Celt-descended people celebrating Halloween (though I’m sure somebody somewhere does).

    • willow

      1) modern day halloween evolved as way to make fun of the witches’ holiday, Samhain. the colonialists would dress up in costumes and play games to taunt them and try and get them to lash out so they could BURN THEM. the original samhain has it’s roots in many cultures as witchcraft and shamanism are based in a collection of celtic, egyptian, african, etc. beliefs.

  • lianegraham

    I don’t know, I think there are limits to this kind of thinking. I think it’s incredibly offensive and racist to dress up as a Chinese person or a Mexican person or a Native American person, but to be a geisha or sugar skull? I mean, those costumes are based on actual recreatable looks. I think as long as you’re willing to be historically/artistically accurate (just please, don’t talk in a voice or use halloween makeup to give yourself blackface or change the shape of your eyes… that is going way too far), it’s okay to go for a specific look that has a connection to a different culture. It’s about how you approach it. You have to have some sensitivity about your costume and how you’re presenting it.
    I mean, if I chose to wear a kimono on any day because I genuinely find it aesthetically pleasing, why should that not be allowed? I’m not gonna be running around talking in some hideously racist stereotypical asian fantasy voice. I just think they’re pretty. I don’t think it’s right to cry racism just because someone wants to explore a look that is not native to his/her culture. That being said, I do acknowledge that often it does come from a place of racism, and in such a case, I certainly do not approve.
    Sidenote? I’m gonna be Minnie Mouse (not a sexy one, just a regular one). Not super controversial.

    • Willow

      ok, for your first paragraph. YES, it’s still racist. you’re dressing up and pretending to be a group of people who actually exist and experince oppression ona daily basis. Geisha are often commonly misrepresented as sex workers and treated with a very negative connotation. This same argument can be said for your second paragraph as well. you’re still picking apart a culture and ignoring the cultural ties that go with it. Native american warbonnets are to be earned, like medals of honor.
      If you want to wear these pieces of that culture, you should have to take the stuff that comes with it. you should have to take the daily discrimination and white colonialism native american feel every day. you should have to take the male entitlement and rape-culture that asian women (especially geisha, or any asian woman who wears traditional clothes is mistaken for a geisha, even though there aren’t many geisha outside of japan.) have to go through. until you can fully comprehend the struggles these people go through for clinging to whatever scrap of their culture is left after white people have had their way with it. no you can’t wear a kimono because it’s “pretty” even if it is “historically accurate”

  • Gwefr

    I’ve also known many Wiccans/Pagans who have expressed dismay at witch costumes because it portrays their religion/faith in an offensive way (and perpetuates a hurtful stereotype) I guess Catholics would probably have something to say about “sexy nun” costumes (and costumes like that), although I can’t say for sure because I don’t know that many Catholics personally

    • Emmett Doyle

      Living in a heavily Catholic town with a Catholic university, I can vouch that a sexy nun costume would cross the line.

      That said, dressing up Mexican stereotypes on Cinco de Mayo or as drunken leprechauns on Saint Patrick’s Day seems to be fine.

    • Mgregs

      I’m sorry, did you just say that witches are off the table as a costume because we may offend the Wiccan’s out there? lol That can’t be real.. You know more witches than Catholics too? I’m Catholic, and I have seen some funny, suggestive priest costumes out there that have made me fall of laughter. I’m sorry, but offending pagans is the last thing on my radar, maybe in 1230 it would have gained a few notches on the things I really don’t care about list, but I didn’t even know that was a thing today… That really is a good one though.

      • Rhea M

        As a Pagan, and a Practicing Witch, your comments actually offended me. It is a Very REAL Offense. The stereotypical witch, as portrayed throughout history, is so off from what we, as Witches (Wise Women), are, that it is a huge offense. We DON’T all wear black, we don’t all have green faces and warts, and we all don’t wear conical hats. In fact, a broom is not a form of transportation, it is a symbol of faith to us, used to sweep the negative from our lives.
        I was studying to be a Catholic, grew up Lutheran for 30 years, so I know that Christianity has it’s own set of beliefs about those of us who work with the natural energies around us. Most of Christianity ASSUMES we kill and eat babies, that we harm others for fun, or that we worship some deity, Christian created by the way, that does not exist, known as Satan. We DON’T. But it seems that no matter how much education can be aquired because of the internet and other outside sources, we are still painted in such a bad light. It is taken in jest.
        However, many of us believe in doing things differently, and I am sure your prejudice about Witches comes from ignorance and what you have been taught by the mainstream churches.
        Look into Celtic Cultures, into the Roma, and most other European Cultures long before Christianity was forced onto our peoples by good meaning Catholics, scared that women carried any knowledge of healing, teaching, etc, and you might be surprised that the persecution done by your faith, alone, nearly wiped out an entire Culture. Look to the American Indian beliefs, if you want to learn more about what we believe, it is very similar.
        It is through that sort of prejudice, that people think donning cultural costumes of religious significance, is ok. It isn’t! You expect us to revere the Pope, because he is the speaker for God, how about you respect our traditions as well, and understand that no everyone’s Culture, is up for grabs, to be used to humiliate and torment, and oh, because it is so fashionable.

        • Mgregs

          Easy Sabrina, I’m not a practicing Catholic so I don’t think the happenings in Salem are exactly on my shoulders. Now, you want me to forget the magic and fun of Halloween because you and lavender brown say so.
          I’d say I’d respect this fervor, but then I have to respect people who worship trolls or Elvis. With this funny thing called science it is tough to get on board with any religion let alone one that worships witches. So no, my future daughter will go as a witch to Halloween if she wants to because if you consider yourself an actual witch, the other things you have to say is sort of null.

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  • Anonymous

    Shoot me, but i feel that cultural approriation doesn’t have to be all shitty. Do i have an issue with such costumes? Yes. Is sexualising beliefs and traditions for a “just a joke” costume offensive? Indeed. Can we accept, appreciate and experience food, beliefs, clothing, craft, language, music and traditions from other cultures without being racists?

    i do find the use of cultural symbols or icons for purely aesthetic use interesting. Stripping these things of meaning reminds you what they once were and what they are now. What they represent and stand for. Constantly the world is accepting elements of western culture or mixing it with their own. i know plenty of people doing charity work who were encouraged to experience local culture when in villages. They did it for fun, maybe didn’t fully understand the meaning, but did it for the experience. They weren’t mocking anyone.

    It is also quite possible that i being Irish have had to learn to put up with it, from growing up in Belfast, to seeing portrayals of Catholics and the Irish never mind St Paddy’s (in all fairness we screwed that one up ourselves). But still, interesting thoughts in this article.

    • Ms World

      I don’t understand how you can say “Stripping these things of meaning reminds you what they once were” That sounds really stupid

  • Michelle

    My god what is this country coming to? Your flipping out about Halloween and how racist it is? Maybe the sooner people like you stop finding racism in everything, the sooner we can get on with our lives. This political correct shit is out of hand. Pretty soon we won’t even speak to each other as not to offend one another. You make me sick. Oh and I hope my comment doesn’t offend you too.

    • Offend minority

      Education is my big issue, which is clear it is something you lack off. I don’t find it offensive if a person of another race has honest interested in my culture, but when you use it as an excuse to dress up as it, with out knowing or having any interest in the cultural meaning just because they find it cute,cool or pretty. Yeah, I’m going to get offended. Especially if they do it and get overly drunk and then post pictures on facebook about how cool they look and how much fun they had dressing up as something with cultural significance. The sooner people like you stop treating other’s culture like a novelty the sooner we will be able to get along.

      Also it’s “You’re flipping out” not “Your flipping out”. Grammar: the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.

      • Daniel Swinney

        I agree with your main point, but you really shouldn’t be calling someone out on their grammar, considering yours.

  • Nteriy

    I bought a last minute costume this year called a ‘Gothic Vampire Robe’ and guess what? As a goth girl, myself, I find it offensive that they would call it ‘Gothic’ when it is neither within the goth subculture, nor does it have any connection to those who might consider themselves human vampires.

    Witches are offensive to anyone who identifies as a witch. Sexy nuns are offensive to Catholics. Secy animal constumes are probably offensive to PETA in some way. And that Anna Rexia costume parodying a serious disorder? Yeah, I’m guessing that’s pretty damn offensive to anyone with half a brain.

    What I’m trying to say is that Halloween costumes have never been made to be ‘politically correct’ or ‘unoffensive’. They’re costumes, and most people give no thought to the costume past wondering if it looks good enough to get them laid, or does it look adorable on their baby or not. People aren’t all trolling around in attempts to be racist to everyone, just as I’m sure anyone dressing up as Jesus isn’t trying to piss on Christians. They’re just costumes.

    • Amanda Duncil

      What’s interesting is that the word “Gothic” encompasses a wide range of styles and ideals that were influenced by many aspects of pop culture, etc. The subculture hit it big in the late 70s in England. It’s a contemporary movement based on iconic aesthetics, literature, and movies. You can’t quite put it on par with appropriating the culture of a marginalized group of people who have a history of and/or currently suffer systematic oppression on a daily basis. It’s not the same as donning a “witch” outfit; Pagans were subjugated to colonization and forced out of their religion.

      I’m not sure where you’re garnering your blanket optimism, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a horribly offensive costume worn by someone who wasn’t trying to be offensive. Most of the people I know who are going as Jesus are, in fact, trying to piss on Christians.

      The point of the article is to spread awareness, so that people who are genuinely unaware that their costume is offensive can’t claim ignorance when they continue to parade around as whatever marginalized group they are (mis)representing.


    Everyone needs to chill the fuck out and not be offended by a fucking Halloween costume.