A Culture is Not A Costume

(Or, Don’t be Racist Just Because It’s Hallowe’en)

After a summer full of festivals, where half dressed white people wear ‘Indian Headdresses’ and drink far too much in a field, it’s time for Hallowe’en, where half dressed white people wear ‘Indian Headdresses’ and drink far too much at a house party. Native Americans get quite the bad deal, their religious garments turned into fashion accessories and diverse cultures homogenised into the shallowest of caricatures.

The cultures as costume problem peaks at Hallowe’en, the annual fancy dress holiday. Not just for sale are traditional and sacred items of clothes turned into fashion accessories, but whole racial stereotype costume with racial slurs as names. It seems that instead of characters or monsters, and other costumes that require attention to detail, the costume world has decided that half hearted ‘cowboy and indian’ costumes are a good staple. It’s not just the shops and manufacturers to blame; they would not make and sell costumes if people weren’t buying and wearing them.

It’s not just Native Americans who are turned into a two dimensional characters by Hallowe’en costumes; Mexico, is individually stereotyped, and both East Asia and the Middle East are blurred into vague ‘Oriental’ and ‘Arab’ costumes. Tellingly, Russia, Germany, and other predominantly white countries fair slightly better when made the theme of a costume. A good example is that the Native American Headdress is specific to certain Native peoples, and each feather is awarded for community services, whereas the cheerleader outfit is a sports kit that is associated with the USA, where the sport is most common.

Two very sad aspects exist in this, and they both maintain racial hierarchy in society and further unnoticed racism in individuals. Cultures as costumes reduce the real people who are part of those cultures to the fictional status of things we dress up as, dehumanising and erasing them as people, and almost always focus on the negative aspects from an outside perspective, and the aspects that are the cause of much disadvantage.

The way cultures are reduced to fictional status, and the people who are part of them to characters, is obvious in the way the costumes are so alike, and have generic names. To declare one outfit a costume called “Mexican” is to erase the fact that various people live in Mexico, wearing all types of outfits, most probably similar to the outfits worn in any country. There is even more generalising when an outfit is called “Asian”, as this erases not only the various people, but the differences in culture between the many countries and areas in Asia.

The way that these costumes seem to focus on the negative views of other cultures, and the aspects that damage the communities cause these negative views to be more widespread, and the damaging aspects to be heightened, and taken less seriously.