Don’t mess up when you dress up

Halloween costume

Regardless of the fact that there is always last-minute scrambling, I think about my Halloween costume options all year. (There are so many factors!) What will the weather be like? Can I find everything at Value Village? Will someone be wearing the same outfit? Do I want to be funny or clever or scary? Is my costume culturally appropriative? If I’ve answered ‘yes’ to the latter, my costume is certainly a no-go.

According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation is the “adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.” Dressing up as a culture other than your own constitutes cultural appropriation.  This is not to suggest that people should not wear the dress of their own culture. Cultural appropriation is an everyday occurrence—from the Harlem Shake YouTube phenomenon, to Miley Cyrus’ twerking obsession, to hipster headdresses—but it is especially prevalent around Halloween. Halloween—at least in a contemporary context—is intended to be an enjoyable celebration of gluttony and temporary transformation. However, when the transformation means dressing up as another culture, that is not okay.

A costume can be put on and discarded at the wearer’s discretion, without experiencing the reality of oppression faced by those for whom it is not a costume. Cultural appropriation “perpetuates stereotypes, misinformation, and historical and cultural inaccuracies.” A few popular examples include Pochahontas costumes, headdresses, geisha costumes, sugar-skull face-paint, and ‘terrorist’ costumes.

Perhaps you are reading this article about cultural appropriation and doubting that it occurs on Dalhousie campus. This isn’t the case. Last year Ishika Sharma, VP External of the Dalhousie International Student Association, was approached by students who were rightfully upset about some of the costumes worn by students on campus. These included a student in blackface, “a guy wearing a burqa as a Halloween costume,” says Sharma, and non-Aboriginal students wearing Aboriginal themed costumes.

Hamsphire College in Massachusetts has created the fantastic online checklist, “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?” Check yourself and your friends—your costume can have unintended negative effects! The four questions are a simple and straightforward resource.

1. Is my costume supposed to be funny? Is the humour based on making fun of real people, human traits or cultures?

2. Does my costume represent a culture that is not my own?

3. Does my costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?

4. Does my costume perpetuate stereotypes, misinformation, or historical and cultural inaccuracies?

The Equity and Accessibility Office of the Dalhousie Student Union has been handing out information about cultural appropriation during Halloween and will continue to do so on Halloween night. They will be tabling outside of the Grawood with pamphlets, candy, and a rack of “last-minute costumes.” The mandate of the Equity and Accessibility Office is to challenge institutional and systemic oppression on campus. It is not their intention to shame or ostracize students but instead foster a safer space for students on campus.

It is impossible to distill an entire culture into one costume. Not only is it offensive, it shows lazy costume skills. I am issuing Dal students a challenge: don’t rely on tired and problematic stereotypes. Be more creative this Halloween.

Disclosure: Elise Boudreau Graham is the Campaigns and Partnership Coordinator at the DSU Equity and Accessibility Office.


  1. Josh H on October 29, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    No no and no.

    This is a free country. If we start worrying about hurting someone’s feelings, then we might as well abandon every costume, holiday and stay inside our homes in fear of offending someone.

    Halloween itself is offensive for some cultures. Christmas is offensive too. So is Ramadan. Should we abandon that too?

    People should be allowed to express whatever they want without anyone telling them they cannot do it. Just like we allow people in Canada to express their religion and wear their turbans, crosses, niqabs/hijabs/ceremonial daggers etc etc etc.

    • Jason Dosequis on October 30, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      No doubt you’re a white dude.

  2. Mike on October 29, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    While I support the overall message of this article, I have a quip with the definition of “cultural appropriation” you have used to set the “no-go” zone in the context of Halloween and the chose of Halloween costumes. I wholeheartedly agree that cultural appropriation, especially during Halloween, can be, and often is, a serious problem. I agree that the elimination of costumes that “perpetuate stereotypes, misinformation, and historical and cultural inaccuracies” is an important goal and concern of the Dalhousie community.

    However, to say that it is inappropriate to dress up as a culture other than your own might take things too far. For example, a white person dressing up as Malcolm X is “cultural appropriation” according to the definition you have cited, and therefore should be a “no-go” costume this Halloween. Yet is the costume inappropriate? Is the costume inherently racist? Or is it just someone trying to respectfully present an accurate portrayal of another individual? Is dressing up as a gender other than your own “gender appropriation”? Is this inappropriate? Is this inherently sexist? Is it inappropriate for women to dress as male actors/characters/public figures for Halloween? Indeed, it may be more racist to say that only people of a certain culture can dress up as that culture, and more sexist to say that you must limit your costume to a member of your own sex.

    While a good starting point and certainly worthy of consideration, determining the appropriateness of a costume based on the definition of “cultural appropriation” may be too broad a measure. The focus should be on the message of the costume or how the costume may affect others, i.e. whether it “perpetuates stereotypes, misinformation, and historical and cultural inaccuracies,” or whether it denigrates or caricatures an ethnic group. In the end, it is not really about who is in the costume, but all about the costume itself.

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Elise Boudreau Graham

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