The Halloween Dilemma: Cultural Appropriation Vs. Cultural Appreciation

With Halloween just around the corner, this feels like the perfect time to acknowledge the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

Cultural Appropriation: the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially in a way that doesn’t respect their original meaning or reinforces stereotypes that contribute to oppression.

Cultural Appreciation: the act of listening and being mindful to those who are a part of the fabric of another culture or society.

The key difference between these two definitions is that appreciation seeks to understand and learn about another culture to connect cross culturally, while appropriation is picking and choosing aspects to take from another culture that is not your own and using it for your own purpose.

Allow me to provide an embarrassing example of when I, in my younger and more ignorant years, culturally appropriated. Back in middle school, I distinctly remember taking a trip to the local Halloween store with some friends to pick out a group costume. I had just recently watched the Disney film “Pocahontas,” this movie is offensive on its own but that’s a story for another time, so when I spotted a costume of a Caucasian in traditional Native American clothing, it was end game.

My white friends and I confidently wore our culturally appropriated Native American Halloween costumes that were disturbingly named, “Pow Wow Princess.” It is a memory I am not proud of.

Cultural appropration. Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash
Protest ignorance. Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

Looking back, I know for a fact my friends and I had no intention of offending anyone with our costumes, but it didn’t matter whether what we did was malicious or not, it was still wrong. I can’t imagine what my Native friends must have thought when they saw us strolling the streets in attires that are sacred to them. To have the descendants of those who have oppressed their culture and ancestors for centuries wearing Native American headdresses and holding tomahawks like it was no big deal. It must have been like being punched in the face and then being spit on.

If some of you are still struggling to understand, let me try another way. Have any of you ever wondered why Halloween stores don’t sell “Jesus costumes” or “God costumes.” Probably because it would be sacrilegious and a protest of devout Christians would be outside the Halloween store with pitchforks. Notice the hypocrisy?

Nonetheless, the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can seem like a delicate one. So here a few tips on how to toe that line and make sure you don’t end up unintentionally offending anyone:

Cultural appropriation
My culture is not your costume. Photo by @sumerianartt on Instagram

Sacred artifacts are not accessories.

As I learned after wearing a feathered headdress when I was 13, other culture’s religious or historic antiquities are not costume accessories. Items like this can have spiritual and ceremonial significance and someone who is not a member of the culture wearing such an artifact is a great insult.

Darkening your skin for a costume (blackface) is never okay.

This should be a given but unfortunately, some still think this is a forgivable offense. Well, unless you want to get beat up at your friend’s Halloween party, never dress up as an ethnic stereotype. If you think dressing up as another race is a quirky costume, you have bigger problems.

Look for ways to learn about another culture besides dressing up.

One of the biggest reasons people take offense to cultural appropriation is because people pick and choose what they want from another culture. Many of us have no interest is being disrespectful to someone else’s culture but instead want to pay homage to a culture we find beautiful and fascinating. We can do this by wearing clothing made by members of the culture instead of costumes made by white people who have no idea the cultural significance of the outfit.

Ask first.

My last tip is to just ask someone from the culture whether your interest in paying homage would be deemed as offensive. Oftentimes, cultural appropriation is born out of ignorance and not knowing any better. I have gotten into the habit of asking friends of mine and even store clerks whether my ideas would be considered cultural appropriation. Most people are happy that you have asked and are eager to help their white allies navigate the line between appropriation and appreciation.

Allison Hinrichs

Content Editor Associate

Hailing from Minnesota, Allison is a vegetarian, meditating yogi who practices a conscious lifestyle. An adrenaline junkie at heart, she has gone rock climbing in Germany and surfing the waves in Mexico. She is a keen reader who loves to learn, as long as it’s not math. And she has hopes of discovering “the secrets of the universe” by exploring the globe, experiencing other cultures, and finding a variety of different perspectives.

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