Halloween: Appropriation or Appreciation?

Halloween came and went, and this year’s celebration was no short of extravagant costumes. Historically, this annual spook-fest originally came to be to ward off evil spirits but has now turned into a global costume party. Be it your favourite bag of chips, animals (bunnies are especially popular) or a dead bride, everyone comes together on the last day of October to celebrate all sorts of self-expression. Although Halloween is supposed to be all in the name of having fun, there are a few issues that arise amidst all the trick-or-treating and haunted house hunting.

Back in 2011, CNN reported a campaign launched by students of Ohio University that aims to bring awareness to the appropriation of cultures during Halloween; “We’re a culture, not a costume”. It draws attention to the problematic nature of many costumes donned during Halloween. Most of these insensitive outfits often take specific elements of a culture, and take them out of context, for the sole purpose of mockery or to make oneself seem “edgy”.

In the internet-fueled world, we live in today, social influencers and celebrities have an arguably large impact in the things we do. Many of our actions, if not inspired by them, are often justified by them –but they’ve made some huge blunders that we definitely shouldn’t mimic. Some of the worst celebrity Halloween costumes have stirred up controversy over the lack of cultural sensitivity. The list of celebrities that have gone too far during Halloween is endless, but here are some that will make you sigh out of frustration.

Scott Disick as an Arab for Halloween 2015.

The photo on the left is an Instagram post by Khloe Kardashian that captioned, “Sheik P*ssy”.


Heidi Klum as Hindu Goddess, Kali.


Chris Brown and friends as members of the Taliban,

complete with the Thawb and a shotshell shoulder bandolier.


Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio & Khloe Kardashian dressed as Native Americans.

Costumes do not become “inappropriate” or contribute to cultural appropriation just because they are a form of another culture. They touch on something much deeper than that. Appropriating culture occurs when a significant cultural artifact or practice is turned into a pop culture symbol, completely ignoring its history and significance – much like the use of the bindi, and the Native American headgear that carry long histories of discrimination and sacrifice for its people. Apart from that, religiously insensitive costumes – as shown by Scott Disick, Heidi Klum and Chris Brown – are incredibly crass because they are worn out of pure mockery towards the religion’s sacredness.

But where do we draw the line between appropriating and appreciating a culture? In recent news, mothers who dressed their kids up as the latest Disney phenomenon, Moana, have been labelled ‘racists’. Their justification? Moana is of Polynesian heritage, and most kids who went as the Disney heroine were not. Even the New York Post got in on this, citing an article by a mother whose daughter wanted so much to dress as either Moana or Elsa this Halloween, which she immediately dismissed because her daughter is neither Polynesian like Moana nor blonde like Elsa.

As mentioned before, cultural appropriation happens when race, religion and self-identity are used out of hate and discrimination. However, it’s doubtful that these kids wanting to dress as their favourite characters come from such vicious places in their hearts. Kids do it out of pure adoration because they can’t conceptualise things like stereotypes, or why a specific hairstyle is somehow linked to a deep-rooted lineage and culture. They have yet to grasp the idea of appropriation, so they dress as they please. Hence, the malice that enrages people over cultural appropriation, to begin with, is not encoded within their actions.

Disney princesses like Moana and Tiana are a far cry from the princesses I knew growing up. These girls don’t wait for any guy to sweep them off their feet – they’re strong and independent – a message that is extremely useful for girls to learn and understand from a young age. Admiration is often executed in three steps; talking about something, following it, and finally, becoming it. These princesses are exactly the kind of heroines we need young ones to look up to. So, imitation by way of Halloween costumes is just one way we can progress in that direction.

So, where is that thin line between right and wrong?

In the end, it all comes down to your intention and at least a bit of thought before you hit the town with just any costume you thought was funny. It would be horrible if every culture were to remain in their own lanes forever. The world is a melting pot of cultures, and that should be celebrated throughout the year. Just make sure to put yourself in someone else’s shoes figuratively, before you do so literally.

Written by Tania Zainudin

Ratchet pharmacist and local fashion slut.

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