'Pow Wow Princess,' 'Geisha Glam' and 'Gypsy': Beware of cultural appropriation posing as a Halloween costume

Kamilah Newton
·6 mins read
Thinking of going as a sexy Geisha to this year's Halloween party? You might want to think again. (Photo: Getty Images)
Thinking of going as a "sexy Geisha" to this year's Halloween party? You might want to think again. (Photo: Getty Images)

Despite growing recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement and of racial oppression in general, when it comes to Halloween, it appears that being none the wiser remains tradition for many — as evidenced by the ongoing use of cultural appropriation as a basis for costumes.

As a result of online marketplaces offering a slew of offensive options — including “Pow Wow Princess,” “Gypsy,” “Geisha Glam” and the “Ghetto Blaster” inflatable boom box — even social media has stepped in with warnings. Pinterest, which has messaged against cultural appropriation since 2016, has taken its guidelines even further this year by introducing new site features stressing cultural sensitivity. And many Twitter users, meanwhile, have already started to share culturally-sensitive costume advice for the upcoming holiday.

"Halloween should be a time for inspiration — not a time for insensitivity,” Annie Ta, head of inclusive product at Pinterest, told Mashable. “Costumes should not be opportunities to turn a person’s identity into a stereotyped image.” Ta explained that the company feels a “responsibility… to keep the platform inspiring and positive and bring awareness to the fact that cultures aren’t costumes."

How well-meaning costumes go wrong

“Cultural appropriation is important to consider during Halloween, because this is when we are most likely to dress up in a costume that is representative of another culture,” Mia Moody-Ramirez, professor and chair of the Baylor University Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media, tells Yahoo Life.

She explains that common appropriative faux pas include “darkening one’s face, wearing ethnic garb and/or dressing up to provoke laughter rather than show respect for a group or person.” In June, Jimmy Fallon faced backlash for an old Saturday Night Live skit in which he impersonated Chris Rock using blackface. And within the past year, other public figures like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have had to apologize for similar offenses.

Historically, blackface has been used to heckle and slander the Black community, with abolitionist Frederick Douglass once calling those who participated in it "the filthy scum of white society who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature… to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens."

George Nicholas, a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University, tells Yahoo Life that he is reluctant to pinpoint this issue to just Halloween, as cultural appropriation happens daily, and also because the holiday is one that traditionally welcomes “cultural anarchy.” He explains that deciding if a costume is “honorific or horrific” is “complicated,” and depends greatly on the context of who is wearing what and why — meaning that, while blackface is completely off-limits, other costumes and their accessories, such as Afro wigs, could be acceptable in some cases.

Ironically, as many people still want to wear Afros as part of a Halloween costume, appropriate or not, Black people who actually have Afros or other natural hairstyles are often discriminated for that reason. It’s what’s prompted a handful of states to adopt and others to push for hair-discrimination laws; a national CROWN Act would make Black hair discrimination illegal on a national level, and it’s currently awaiting approval from the Senate.

Nicholas says he reserves grace for children who are simply “picking up ideas from movies and popular media,” but says what he finds to be the most offensive is when inappropriate costumes involve adults who should know better. He notes that deciding on good costumes can provide “great teaching moments for parents.”

On the flip side, Moody-Ramirez denotes clear boundaries, saying, “If you or your child doesn’t know the meaning of [a character’s] culture and the ethnic attire under consideration… it’s not a good idea to wear it.” She further explains that “tribal markings, headdresses and turbans would be inappropriate costume attire because they are tied to a specific ceremony or religious meaning,” naming Disney’s Polynesian princess, Moana, as one popular example that should be avoided unless the family takes the time to research the culture being depicted.

Last year, Glory Ames, of the White Earth reservation and the co-president of the American Indian Student Association at Minnesota State University Moorhead, spoke out against these offensive displays. She told The Washington Post that people “blatantly take certain aspects of our culture, race, religion, and use it for their advantage and ignore the people living it.” Ames adds, “Non-Natives can ‘pretend’ to be Native for one day of the year, and it’s all the ‘cute’ or ‘sexy’ parts of being Native, but there are so many people who can’t just put on or take off the costume, they have to live with all the other aspects of being born Native.”

Adds Moody-Ramirez, “Children can dress up in costumes that don’t require them to darken their faces or to change the texture of their hair.”

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