It’s a Culture, Not a Costume: Staying Away from Cultural Appropriation this Halloween

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With Halloween less than a week away, it’s crunch-time for brainstorming the perfect costume. Before you decide on the prizewinning get-up for your spook-tacular weekend, make sure it’s not hurtful or offensive. Sounds like a no-brainer right? Surprisingly not. One stereotypical costume continues to make a debut every October. Valley explains why you should steer clear of the feather headdresses and face paint this Halloween.

‘Sexy Native American Warrior’. ‘Native Beauty’. ‘Indian Princess’.

These are the types of American Indian costumes one can expect to see in Halloween stores face paint, feathers and all. Not only do these costumes paint a false portrait of a certain group of people, but they aid in keeping racism alive today. This negative concept of dressing as a different culture is known as cultural appropriation.

John Sanchez, an ethics professor at Penn State University, is one of two American Indian professors here on campus. Throughout his courses, he educates students on the continuing racism and stereotyping of American Indians that is still prevalent in today’s society.

“We look at these costumes and we know that’s not Indian but people think that it is,” Sanchez says. “It’s like you’re making fun of us.”

He states that face paint has deep cultural significance from tribe to tribe. The colors and designs are spiritual symbols. Feathers are also held to high esteem, each kind having a different meaning. To receive a feather is an honor in American Indian culture, which is why a headdress made of multiple feathers is seen as highly prestigious. For a cheap recreation to be sold at Halloween stores is derogatory and insulting.

Wearing these symbols without any knowledge of what they stand for, let alone inaccurately portraying them, makes a mockery of American Indian culture.

“People do it because they say it’s their right to wear these things but you don’t have to be speaking from an ethics point of view to know that it’s just wrong,” Sanchez says. “Stereotyping is so deeply immersed in American society today that we don’t even realize that we’re being offensive.”

Sadly, it’s not just American Indians that are affected. Various other cultures experience this same struggle as well. The University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), Penn State’s student government, decided to do something to open up a dialogue about the issue. The organization started a campaign on campus called “We Are a Culture, Not a Costume,” which originated at Ohio University in 2011 in hopes to educate students about the disrespectful nature of turning a culture into a Halloween costume.

Divy Agnihotri, a junior at Penn State and UPUA’s Diversity Subcommittee Chair, said that the issue was brought to his attention after noticing several incidents of cultural insensitivity on campus.

In addition to creating a Facebook event which students can attend by taking a vow to not wear costumes that stereotype cultures, they have distributed over 100 informational posters around campus and downtown to spread awareness.

“We want people to see these posters to put in their mind that this can offend someone,” Agnihotri says. “It’s a problem that these types of costumes are being sold and that’s part of the reason why people think it’s okay.”

For more information or to join, visit the campaign’s Facebook event:

When it comes down to it, if you’re unsure about whether your costume is offensive or not – best word of advice? Don’t wear it. Be knowledgeable, be respectful, and you’ll be sure to have a stereotype-free Halloween!


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