Cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes

Photo courtesy of

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By Melanie Emerson, Contributing Writer

As Halloween approaches I grow anxious about the decisions my fellow Gettysburgians will make concerning their own Halloween costumes.

During my three years here at Gettysburg College I have seen openly racist costumes. I have also seen costumes that deeply offended someone else, but at the time I did not understand why. These costumes, while widely accepted by our mainstream culture, were problematic and offensive because of cultural appropriation.

Before I delve into this topic I want to make a few disclaimers: I am a white, protestant, cis-gendered woman in a heterosexual relationship. I actively acknowledge that I have certain privileges that others do not. During my time here at Gettysburg College I have been exploring and coming to understand just what this means. Grappling with one’s identity and privilege(s) is a difficult process.

As Halloween approaches I think it is important to contemplate what privilege means to each of us in concerns to costumes and cultural appropriation. I have to be honest with you: I myself have difficulty conceptualizing cultural appropriation.

Throughout my childhood I was told America was a great big melting pot, and then the melting pot metaphor got changed to a stew where all the ingredients have their own unique flavor, but the sum of all the flavors is greater than the individual ingredients. Regardless of the metaphor used, it was presented to me as a really good thing. Throughout my childhood and into my young adulthood I really thought it was, and this is where my privilege comes into play.

As a result of my privileged status I have been led to believe that the incorporation of aspects of different cultures into a larger culture is a good thing. If done correctly this can be cultural exchange, but the cultures in question have to be equally valued and respected.

Cultural appropriation is, at its core, about a lack of respect for a marginalized culture. There are certain cultures that are marginalized within our society, and therefore any aspect of their culture that the mainstream adopts is not incorporated through cultural exchange but rather through cultural appropriation. The kind of respect required during cultural exchange entails understanding the history behind a hair style, genre of music, type of art or article of clothing.

This is where the individual comes into play. We all have the ability to stop this pattern of cultural appropriation on an individual level because while our intentions may be well meaning, the effect of our actions are in the eye of the beholder.

So, in anticipation of Halloween I would like to ask every member of the Gettysburg College community to think critically about your costume choices. Please be respectful of others and of the power each and every one of you possesses. While you are contemplating your Halloween costumes I wanted to leave you with some final thoughts:

First, parodies are rarely respectful. Impersonating someone for comedic relief, unless the individual is a comedian, is not funny. Second, dressing up as someone you admire or your favorite book character is great if done respectfully and not in parody. Third, do not alter your skin color for purposes other than appearing ghoulish, ghostly or like a vampire. Do not do it. Lastly, costumes should not implicate a situation where another living creature was injured emotionally, physically or psychologically. The pain of another human being or animal is never acceptable.

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