Your Guide To Avoiding Cultural Appropriation When Planning Your Halloween Costume

Halloween is the best excuse adults have for pretending to be someone else for a night. While the days of knocking on doors and asking for candy might be long gone, there is plenty of fun to be had with dressing up. Snap a new profile picture for your social media accounts, head out to a costume party, or have an all-out witchy photo shoot like TikToker Jessica.bubb did. The only thing you don't want to do when selecting your Halloween costume is appropriate another culture.

You've probably heard of cultural appropriation online, particularly when a celebrity like Julianne Hough gets herself in hot water over an appropriative costume (via E! News). But what does it actually mean? When you appropriate a culture, you take from it for your own benefit without facing any of the hardships that come along with actually belonging to it. That benefit might be monetary, or it could consist of other currency, like online popularity, approval from a certain social group, or, simply, fun. Some instances of cultural appropriation are meant to mock that culture, while others are rooted in sheer ignorance. Still, neither is acceptable. Nevertheless, you can dress up respectfully this year if you follow these tips.

Examples of offensive costumes throughout history

Cultural appropriation goes back for nearly as long as Halloween has been celebrated in the United States. According to, the custom of dressing up in costumes, playing pranks, and asking neighbors for food arrived in America with Irish immigrants in the 1940s. By the early 1900s, it was commonplace for white children to dress up in black masks with exaggerated African American features and coarsely textured wigs. This quickly evolved into blackface, followed by "exotic" costumes featuring turbans and robes. When Halloween costumes were commercialized in the 1950s, some of the most popular variations were those that depicted cowboys and "Indians," which were actually caricatures of Native Americans, as detailed by The Hill.

In more recent decades, insensitive costumes have been largely fueled by movies and television. White children frequently wish to dress up like their favorite movie characters, including those who belong to other races and cultures like Mulan, Moana, Maui, and Princess Tatiana. Adults aren't immune to the desire to emulate onscreen personas either, with popular costumes often being modeled after characters from movies like "Memoirs of a Geisha" or shows depicting powerful female characters such as Michonne in "The Walking Dead."

Examine your motives

If you're drawn to a Halloween costume that depicts a person of a race or culture that is not your own, pause to reflect. Why do you feel motivated to dress up in this particular way? If it's because you admire the character or historical figure and the culture they represent, express that admiration in a more actionable manner. Rather than dressing up as Pocahontas, for example, learn the true history behind her story and how it was whitewashed for entertainment (via Indian Country Today). Then, take action. Donate to the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center or make a commitment to shop from Indigenous-owned small businesses.

After serious consideration, if you still feel absolutely compelled to dress up as a figure from a different cultural background, tread lightly. Create an outfit that is recognizable but omits garb considered sacred or ceremonial. This includes headdresses, as explained by Tribal Trade Co. Avoid using makeup to change the tone of your skin or the shape of your facial features. Rather than wearing a wig of textured hair, use spray color to temporarily alter the color of your own. Remember that you're depicting the essence of the person or character, not the entire culture. If the costume you're considering does not honor a specific figure and only offers a general representation of a race or culture, assume it's a no-go. This applies to any commercialized costume with a label that includes a term like "Indian," "Oriental," "Native American," "Afro," or "exotic."