Cultures Are Not Costumes and Why It Matters To White People

Cultural Appropriation Flyer

We are at this time of year when being naughty and spooky is more fun than being nice, and Halloween allows you the opportunity to let your inner child or monster run free. We also start to hear the words cultural appropriation more than usual, and all of the sudden it seems the “PC police” are on patrol looking for Bindis and Headdresses. Many North Americans have some memories of the innocent days of Halloween past when they dressed as a little “Red Indian” or “A China Man,” and now all of the sudden the label racist is being slapped in-front of their favorite outfits – yet another weight on the burden of white costumers who now have to add race relations to their mental processes while shopping for candy and glitter.

The term cultural appropriation causes many to recoil at the idea of wardrobe rules. Amidst protests: this is an over-reaction, too sensitive or ridiculous, ultimately the question arises,”If I mean no disrespect, why cannot I take from any culture any people anywhere anytime. Isn’t that what we humans do?” To some extent it is but we can not divorce it from who has been doing most of the taking and the viciousness in which it was done.

To tackle the question though we first need to distinguish a racist from a racist act. One is being the other is doing. The former is only confirmed by repeating the later. Most people will give you a pass to an offense made out of ignorance. Usually they’ll tag a curt little “now you know” at the end buoyed by the unsaid, “and now we’re all better off for it.” Having worn a costume now considered racist does not make you a racist but when you dismiss voices of the cultural groups from which you take, the more the label sticks.

Secondly we need to contemplate how can people of one cultural group determine what is fair game and what is offensive to another? Why do many European or North American white people feel they can take what they want from another culture but completely ignore what the clear stewards of that culture have to say about it? Why is the default for majority rule to take and dismiss; a fate minorities and colonized people have had to endure for centuries?

Costume is not consequence free. Cultural symbols and clothing are tied to identity. They can be used to affirm or, most often when in the hands of others, to mock and perpetuate stereo-types. In North America if you are white the social implications of an ethnic costume at Halloween probably has never crossed your mind; unlikely it’s ever had to. At the end of the night you get to take it off.

There exists no recent history for you wherein your culture was and still is trivialized and mocked. On the bodies of colonizers or on those who have historically mocked you, costumes easily slip into caricature of which the racial stigma you can not escape? It’s fun to be black for the night, until you have to talk to the police. It’s great to play Indian, until someone comes along and starts evicting you from your home.

Many people want change but do not know what that looks like, and so cannot recognize it when it is being offered to them.

People who have been living and breathing race relations because they have no choice and no vacation from it are asking white people, people in majority, to do some of the work in healing centuries of damage that racism has caused. Nobody is asking white people to apologize for what their ancestors may have done. But they are asking them to roll up their sleeves and do some of the work in dismantling systems of racism from which they benefit.

No one can tell you what to wear within civilian life. Outside the public decency basics and work requirements nobody can. Certainly no minority can. By sheer lack of number minorities can’t “dictate” anything to anybody. Nobody is more well aware of that than them. Challenging cultural appropriation does not take away freedom of dress from anybody white or otherwise. You can leave your home covered in Bindis with a Headdress and Kimono and no one can stop you but we can warn you on how you are going to be perceived.

Personal pain, poverty and despair know no skin colour but adding state sanctioned, socially enforced and/or encouraged racial stigma does.

Most people with eyes on the prize of racial harmony claim they aspire to lift themselves and society from the ills of racism. However, when people, who have lived breathed and studied these issues for decades say, how about not wear someone’s ethnicity as a costume; so many white people can’t do it! Such an easy place to start yet so many feel a sense of entitlement to do and take what they want culturally from anyone anywhere, asserting their “right” to determine what is fair game from another culture.

Here, white people are not being asked to march. They are not being asked to go to a protest or throw yourselves on to the frontlines as many have seen their fore fathers and mothers do for sake of change. All they are being asked is to, of the 100s if not 1000s of costumes one can wear, choose one that’s not another person’s cultural or ethnic identity. There are people or things that NO LONGER EXIST OR HAVE NEVER EXISTED – costumes of fantasy creatures, twisted ideas, popular celebrities or historical figures (don’t do black, yellow or red face) that are fantastic options. I have done it and have seen it done by plenty of white people whose dress-up is not at the expense of someone’s ethnicity.

Those who have been living under the premise and advantage of majority rule, which the internet is now allowing you to know has been sucking for a lot of minorities, are being asked pretty loud and clear to extend this little olive branch. Yet the request for a slight wardrobe course correction for one night is resisted if not out right dismissed by so many. Why?

Do you want solutions that only come from you? Racial stigma must be eradicated but you don’t have to do any of the work or undertake any accommodations to make that a reality?

Here is an opening for change, for a more compassionate and less racially charged society, yet I still witness basic pleas for mutual-respect being dismissed. People are saying now, not everything is for your taking. If you want change, if you want to improve race relations? A lot of people who live, breathe and study racism are saying this is a good place to start.


Simple living and loving it, I steward a hand tended, bike powered piece of land on a remote west coast island. When my hands are not in the soil I make music, take pictures and blog about media and country-living on TLV.

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