Why Some Halloween Costumes Are Insensitive—And What to Wear Instead

Here's how to make sure your costume selection is respectful.

In the weeks before Halloween, there’s always one big question on my mind: What am I going to dress up as this year? When choosing what to be for Halloween, there’s a lot to consider. But whether you’re making DIY costumes for the kids or organizing a group look with your friends, one of the most important things to think about is whether your costume is culturally appropriate.

If you’re not familiar with cultural appropriation, it can be hard to know what’s okay and what’s not. But not to worry—we did the research to help you make an informed decision about what to be for Halloween.

halloween costumes
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What Is Cultural Appropriation?

To learn about cultural appropriation, we chatted with anthropologist and archaeologist Krissy Hadick, who works in Native American consultation. A big part of her job is advocating for Native American tribes to make sure their culture is respected and protected.

So what exactly is cultural appropriation? The term essentially means borrowing a look or trait from a culture that is not your own. For instance: If a person who does not identify as Native American wears a traditional headdress as part of a costume, they are appropriating the Native American culture.

Krissy Hadick

Many of these cultural aspects can hold significant meaning or value to these groups, which is why we should be conscious about avoiding them.

— Krissy Hadick

“Cultural appropriation is the adoption, by an individual or group of people, of something from another culture that is not their own,” Hadick says. “Examples include artifacts, symbols, clothing, hairstyles, or anything that is of cultural significance to that particular group. Many of these cultural aspects can hold significant meaning or value to these groups, which is why we should be conscious about avoiding them.”

Cultural appropriation is a no-go every day of the year, but the topic tends to come up at Halloween when people are dressing in costume. This year, make sure your costume is respectful and appropriate.

How to Choose a Costume That’s Not Offensive

Culturally appropriated costumes are offensive and insensitive—but if you’re not part of the group that’s being appropriated, it can be hard to understand why. Hadick says a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself what the costume represents. “Does something about the costume represent an entire group of people? If it is representative of a group of people or a particular culture, it probably is not the best idea for a costume,” she says.

In other words, if you wouldn’t wear a headdress, dreadlocks, or a sombrero in your daily life, don’t incorporate them into a costume.

And this rule doesn’t just apply to adults: While your child might be too young to understand why dressing as Pocahontas or Moana isn’t respectful, it opens the door to a conversation you can have with them.

“As adults, we should teach our children that it is not appropriate to take things from another culture for our own personal gain,” Hadick says. “Halloween provides a great opportunity as parents to teach our children about cultural appropriation. If they want to dress as a specific character that might not be culturally appropriate, it allows us to use that moment to have an educational discussion with them.”

If you’re not sure what costumes are okay, run through this list of questions before you head out trick-or-treating. If you answer “yes” to any of them, you’ll want to choose a different look. (If you need help getting started, we’ve got plenty of ideas!)

  • Does your costume represent an entire group of people?
  • Does your costume represent a culture that is not your own?
  • Does your costume mimic traditional clothing or accessories worn by a specific culture that you are not part of?

Dressing in costume is one of the best parts about Halloween—but knowing your costume is offensive or hurtful can quickly take the fun out of the day. When in doubt, play it safe: These last-minute Halloween costumes are all good options!

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