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Don't be a racist on Halloween: A primer on cultural appropriation for white people


Don't be a racist on Halloween (two people in Day of the Dead costumes)

Unfortunately, Halloween is one of those holidays where people goof up in huge ways. For example, these celebrities have donned racist costumes in Halloweens past:


  • Native American: Nicky Hilton, Kenya Moore, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Chrissy Teigen, Jason Walsh, and Ellie Goulding

  • Hindu goddess: Heidi Klum

  • Geisha: Tia Mowry

  • Blackface: Julianne Hough, Luann de Lesseps, and Kim Kardashian

  • Eskimo: Kylie Jenner

  • Day of the Dead*: Ashlie Tisdale


Dressing up as someone from another culture is called cultural appropriation, especially when you try to mimic their skin color, clothing, or hair style…and especially if you are white!

Most (not all!) people now know wearing Black- or Brownface is offensive…but you can also culturally appropriate in many other ways.


“If you have an inkling that your kid's costume choice is offensive, choose another one,” says Shannon Speed, director of the American Indian Studies Center and associate professor in Gender Studies and Anthropology at UCLA. "These costumes often draw on racist or discriminatory stereotypes.”

When is it okay?

If you dress up as someone because you admire them, and you can do it without co-opting their cultural heritage, it’s probably okay. In his younger years, one of my sons dressed up as Michael Jackson, Damian Lillard, and Bruno Mars by copying their clothing and props. But white kids dressing up as Maui or Moana in brown bodysuits or applying sacred tattoos is crossing over the line. It’s safest to stay away from cultural costumes altogether.



Three kids in Halloween costume, one as Bruno Mars
My youngest son as Bruno Mars with a friend and sister

With that said, some people from historically excluded communities do not find it offensive when others wear their traditional costumes. For example, in a recent Great British Bakeoff Mexican-themed episode, the hosts appeared wearing Mexican ponchos and sombreros and making ridiculous, insensitive jokes. On social media, many Latines did not find this to be problematic. Of course, no particular community is a monolith; in other words, everyone has different opinions.


Why it matters

In my view, if a costume (or hairstyle or accessory) offends someone as cultural appropriation, I want to steer clear.


As a white person, I believe it’s my responsibility to show respect and listen to people when they say it’s offensive.

Why on earth would we want to take advantage of someone else’s culture for our own gain or for fun? It’s disrespectful and hurtful.


*Is sugar skull makeup culturally appropriating the Day of the Dead? This question is hotly debated among Mexicans. Read a variety of perspectives here.

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