Don’t be Hurtful on Halloween

Halloween is right around the corner! You may be trying to decide what to be for Halloween this year – a witch, Hermione Granger, or your favorite Game of Thrones character – and the options are almost endless. When choosing what to wear, remember that you are always representing Alpha Sigma Tau, no matter if you’re in letters or a costume. Our Core Values of graciousness and respect should play into your decisions when deciding what to be for Halloween.

The most obvious way that we can portray graciousness and respect is by avoiding costumes that hurt others through cultural appropriation. In its most simple definition, cultural appropriation is “when somebody adopts parts of another culture that is not their own.” 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.** When choosing what to be for Halloween, it is important to be mindful of potential hurt that your costume could cause someone.

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 be out of bounds.+

  • Source: You should think first about the culture that your costume comes from. If the costume 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 centuries-long oppression ranging from being forced from their land to children being separated from their families to attend boarding schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their native language or to represent the culture of their tribe.++ Through this history, Native Americans have 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 hurtful and 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 to understand 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. But 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 are painted with the name of the person who has passed away and decorated in a way to honor their life.^ When you understand the deeper meaning behind the symbols and traditions of another culture, you may be able to better understand why it is hurtful to use them as a costume for a 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 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, such as a Diwali festival.

Your Halloween costume can still be fun or silly or super cute, but of all the things that you can choose to be on Halloween, why choose to be hurtful?

If you’re struggling to come up with a Halloween costume, here are some ideas!

Girl Power!

  • Wonder Woman
  • Rosie the Riveter
  • A League of Their Own


  • The Spice Girls
  • Sandy from Grease
  • Cher from Clueless


  • A sushi roll
  • Taco Bell sauce packet
  • Your favorite emoji


  • Animals
  • Astronaut
  • Zombie


* 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.