It’s less than two weeks until Halloween and many Long Islanders have been picking up their Halloween costumes. People who celebrate Halloween question every year what they want to dress up as and how they will do it. According to a survey from YouGov back in 2018, 47% of people disagreed with the statement that it is inappropriate to dress up in a cultural costume. On the other hand, 25% somewhat or strongly disagreed with the statement.
People need to be aware of wearing costumes that are not only potentially physically appropriate, but culturally appropriate as well. Associate Professor at Stony Brook University Joseph Pierce is of Indegenous descent and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He teaches in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature about gender, sexuality and race in Latin America and among Indegenous populations. He believes cultural appropriation comes from history dating back all the way to the 1400’s.
“I think that cultural appropriation is a term that is relatively new, that describes a practice that is very old,” said Pierce. “From the beginning of the colonial period, white people have been imitating indigenous people. White people dressed up as Indians during the Boston Tea Party. That type of playing Indian is something that has a very long history in the U.S.”
Pierce also states that research has demonstrated that people are not very well versed about this history. Being Hispanic with roots from Ecuador and Puerto Rico, I once saw a friend of mine and her boyfriend dress in a culturally inappropriate costume. My friend, who is a white female, dressed as a piñata and her Black boyfriend at the time looked like a mariachi man. This is clearly inappropriate because neither of them are from Hispanic, specifically Mexican, descent in this case. I am pretty sure they did not realize this, but this is an example of mocking the culture and their traditions.
This doesn’t happen with only Hispanic culture, but with other cultures like Native Americans, African Americans, Asians and other cultures that are “non-caucasian.” Pierce believes his Indengenous heritage means being in a constant state of cultural appropriation.
“The premise of the United States is the dispossession of Indigenous land, which is a dispossession of indigenous culture,” said Pierce. “The specifics of white people wearing costumes is a symptom of a much bigger issue, which is about the theft of land and resources that goes hand in hand with the theft of, or the diminishing of identity.”
An example of what Pierce is speaking of is Christopher Columbus, who “discovered” America. However, people fail to know and mention that he forced the Indigenous people who were on the land before him to pick gold or else they would die. This clearly shows how mistreated minority communities like Indigenous people were and continue to be. People are adding to this mistreatment with their costumes.
Some may argue that not being able to dress as a certain culture is taking away their expressive rights. Back in 2015, there was a protest at Yale University about an email from the Intercultural Affairs Council that urged students to be culturally aware of their Halloween costumes that year. Pierce is not a fan of Halloween and is not a fan of costumes in general. However, he feels a negative connotation when he sees someone dressed as someone’s possible ancestor. Pierce notices how people justify this decision by saying “it’s just a joke.”
“If you look at the accumulation of ‘it’s not a big deals,’ then it becomes a pattern so ingrained in American society as to devalue the humanity of indigenous peoples,” said Pierce. “It [cultural appropriation] devalues our cultures, because it means that our cultures are not worthy of the same reverence that other cultures are afforded.”
Stony Brook University Graduate Student and Professor for creative writing, Chelsy Diaz-Amaya teaches a class about culture writing and exploring essays and works from authors of different backgrounds. She also makes her writers aware consistently of cultural appropriation and how not to fetish off this.
“The biggest issue with cultural appropriation in my eyes is the fact that a dominant culture is doing it to the marginalized culture,” said Diaz-Amaya.
Diaz-Amaya is not too into the Halloween spirit, but always feels like she sees a headline every year on a celebrity or group of people wearing something inappropriate or doing Black face. However, she has faced cultural appropriation within her writing and workshops as a writer. Diaz-Amaya is Ecuadorian and sometimes writes in Spanish.
“I was in a workshop once where a student wrote on my paper that I need to write in English, because I write a little bit with Spanish in my dialogue,” said Diaz-Amaya. “I’ve only ever heard that word or phrase from my mother in this language. So I can only write what feels most true.”
Celebrities have a history of cultural appropriation as well from dressing up as a “sexy Native American” to painting on Black face to dressing as Gods and Goddesses that have significant meaning to another culture. I find it personally horrifying that people continue to do Black face even during the 2010’s era. Why do caucasian people feel it is ok to mimic the tan, brown and dark skin tones of cultures consisting of people of color? Having a certain skin color that is not white already puts a small or large target on our backs depending on how dark the skin is unfortunately.
Lake Ronkonkoma resident and Stony Brook University student, Erika Pugliese, likes Halloween, but despises the values being taken away from minority cultures for a costume. She also is not a fan of celebrities encouraging this amongst fans.
“I feel in today’s climate, we have to be considerate as to other people and the heritage that they come from,” said Pugliese. “Because in the past, we’ve been known to neglect that, and that’s coming out in today’s problems and issues. We’re seeing that people have been oppressed and people are still racist to this day.”
Pugliese also mentions how she heard about how Disney, back in 2016, put out a costume based off their new movie, Moana, which is based on polynesian culture. The costume was of the character Maui, a polynesian demigod. The costume consisted of a shirt and skirt with a tan skin tone and tattoos. Many fans and people of polynesian descent raised concern for this due to it being a form of Black face because other people who weren’t that skin tone could’ve worn it. Disney eventually took it off the shelves and regretted their decision.
Pierce suggests that people can become more culturally aware by reading and listening to what “Native and Black People have to say about these things [Black face, and other racial parodies].”
“This is something that is really at the heart of why cultural appropriation is so problematic,” said Pierce. “It takes the ethnic difference of a marginalized community, and treats it as if it were a costume as if it were something to parody. That undermines the ability that we have to describe ourselves on our own terms.”
So do yourself a solid this Halloween and be cautious about your Halloween costume. Ask yourself if you are taking something away from another culture. If you are not sure, you most likely are. Rather than choosing to be a sugar skull, Egyptian or Pocahontas, try being something more generic like an angel or a cat.