Cultural Appropriation in Halloween Costumes

How some popular costumes can harm other cultures.


Group with La Catrina makeup

Alex McCalla

Costumes are an important part of Halloween. Anyone can dress up as anything they want and enjoy the night. However, this unlimited creative opportunity has led to some highly problematic costumes.

Cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

As a white person, I have not been a victim of this. But I have noticed that there are many people wearing costumes that are appropriating ethnic cultures. It is racist, harmful, and painfully common in the US.

These offensive costumes can come in various forms. While there are costumes that are blatantly racist and treat the culture like a joke, many of these people may not realize that their costumes are racist. That doesn’t change how harmful their costume can be.


Man wearing witch doctor costume to a parade (Joe Mabel)

Racist costumes perpetuate negative stereotypes, and if the costume is intended to look creepy then the statement conveyed by the costume is that we’re meant to fear that culture. Which further stigmatizes those people. For example, Vodun is an ancient West African religion that is known for being the origin of Voodoo which has been sensationalized by Hollywood and condemned by Christian cultures as dark and evil. Which pushes the narrative that the religion itself is dark and evil. When in reality, it is just like any other religion, built on faith that prayer will help bring them happiness and success. So dressing up as a “Witch Doctor” or “Voodoo Priest/Priestess” further pushes the stigma that these African religions are something to be feared, when they are not.


Woman wears headdress to a parade

Many of the costumes take aspects of the culture and reduce them to articles of clothing or accessories without understanding their significance. The most common example I can think of are the headdresses that are common among Native American costumes. Headdresses are seen as a symbol of honor and bravery, only worn by chiefs, warriors, and people who are being honored. It is something that you need to earn, and by wearing it as a costume you disrespect the meaning behind it. Consider it like wearing a Medal of Honor despite not serving in the military. In addition, the warbonnets (the most widely known type of Native American headdress) were only worn in a dozen or so tribes in the Great Plains.


Example of how NOT to wear La Catrina make up.
An example of good La Catrina makeup.

There are some cultures that accept it if someone wants to celebrate the same way as them. For example, La Catrina makeup (more well known in the US as sugar skull makeup or calavera makeup) is common in Mexico as a way to celebrate Día de los Muertos. And many Mexican people are happy to share this part of their culture, as long as others are respectful about it. But there are many people who do it in the wrong way. La Catrina makeup is not meant to be scary, it’s meant to be beautiful, as Día de los Muertos is a celebration of remembrance, and not a somber or spooky event. It is a way of honoring and respecting the dead, and so splattering blood onto it isn’t exactly respectful, now is it?

There are thousands of different things you can dress up as for Halloween. And it only comes one night a year, so think carefully about what you choose to be for Halloween. It can be difficult sometimes to know if your costume is appropriate or not, but the best way to find out is simply to do some research beforehand, and use some common sense.