Being Respectful on Halloween

It is almost Halloween! You may already be brainstorming this year’s costume – your favorite superhero, Hermione Granger, or even Eleven from Stranger Things – and the options are almost endless. When deciding what to wear, however, remember that you are always representing Alpha Sigma Tau, whether you’re in letters or a costume. Our Core Values should always influence your choices, including your Halloween attire.

One of the ways that we can practice Graciousness and Respect, two of our five Core Values, during our Halloween celebrations is by selecting costumes that are respectful towards other races, cultures, and ethnicities. This can be achieved by avoiding cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is “when somebody adopts parts of another culture that is not their own,” such as Katy Perry donning geisha makeup and a kimono for a concert performance. Cultural appropriation occurs when “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” *

When you choose a Halloween costume that appropriates another culture, you send the message that you care more about looking cute or having an interesting costume than you do about the people of that culture.** 

Susan Scafidi is a lawyer and professor at Fordham Law School, and an expert on cultural appropriation. She authored the first book on cultural appropriation and the law, Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. Susan advises using “The Three S’s” to help determine whether your costume might have the potential to unintentionally hurt someone or perpetuate negative stereotypes:+

  • Source: You should think first about the culture that inspired your costume. If the idea comes from a culture that has historically been discriminated against, oppressed, or disempowered, it’s probably best to scrap it. For example, Native Americans have faced oppression tactics for centuries, ranging from being forced off of their land to having their children taken from them and sent boarding schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their native language or to practice the culture of their tribe.++ Native Americans have long fought to preserve their culture, traditions, and symbols. When individuals from a majority population, who have typically been the oppressors, turn Native American culture into a costume, it’s dehumanizing and denies the oppression the Native American population has experienced.
  • Significance: You should also seek to understand the meaning behind the symbols or elements of your costume in order to appreciate the significance and potential sacredness to the culture from which you are borrowing. For example, a search of #DayoftheDead on Instagram shows women all over the country painting their faces to look like calaveras (also called “sugar skulls”) – the beautifully decorated skulls which are a part of the celebration of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos. Yet calaveras aren’t just decorative objects for your home or inspiration for Halloween makeup; they’re part of Mexican culture. Calaveras are decorated in honor of a family member or loved one who has passed away. Sometimes they incorporate the name of the person who has died and are decorated in a way that honors their life.^ When you understand the deeper meaning behind the symbols and traditions of another culture, you may be better able to understand why it is in poor taste to use them as a costume for a single night.
  • Similarity: How similar is your costume to the original? Could it be considered a knock-off or a cheap representation? Saris and bindis are beautiful, but if you’re buying a costume at a Halloween store, you’re likely just getting a cheap copycat version of the real thing. If you really want to pay homage to Indian culture, look into whether your campus has an Indian student association and consider attending their events.

Your Halloween costume can be funny, scary, or even super cute while also demonstrating our values of Respect and Graciousness by being considerate of other cultures and identities.



* Johnson, Maisha Z. What’s wrong with cultural appropriation? These 9 answers reveal its harm. Everyday Feminism, June 4, 2015.
** Halloween should be fun, not offensive. Kappa Delta Sorority, October 16, 2017.
+ Dastagir, Alia E. Is it OK for a white kid to dress up as Moana for Halloween? And other cultural appropriation questions. USA Today, October 23, 2017.
++ Little, Becky. How boarding schools tried to “kill the Indian” through assimilation., August 16, 2017.
^ Gavrilova, Anabela. Sugar skulls’ status in popular culture: what is their meaning and where do they originate from? Cruel Daze of Summer blog, August 12, 2013.