Story at a glance

  • Halloween celebrations have transformed wildly since they were first started in Celtic-speaking countries about 2,000 years ago.
  • Its introduction to the United States by Scottish and Irish immigrants eventually led to the commercialization of Halloween costumes by the mid-20th century.
  • White Americans began to wear costumes that reflected cultures and races other than their own, with many donning blackface or dressing as Native Americans.
  • Society is now trending away from the act of cultural appropriation on Halloween.

Halloween is typically one of the rowdiest holidays of the year, as ghouls and goblins step out of their homes to bar hop or take their children door to door collecting candy, but it obviously didn’t start out that way. 

The holiday’s ancient roots can be dated back thousands of years ago, to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Then, in 1745, it first received its name Halloween from the Christian term “Hallowe’en,” meaning Saints’ evening. It’s thought to be the one day each year in which the boundary between this world and the Otherworld is thinned, allowing people to interact with creatures from the Beyond.

Halloween costume history lesson

The history of Halloween shows the way its celebrations have shifted dramatically over time, especially in terms of one of the most important aspects of the night: dressing up in costume. The act of dressing up for Halloween was first recorded all the way back in 1585, when costumes were sewn at home to resemble supernatural figures such as devils, ghosts, witches and monsters. 

It wasn’t until the early 20th century in the United States that costumes took on a different mood entirely, as people sought to portray themselves as other cultures and races than their own, wearing blackface to imitate African Americans or donning turbans and other symbols of what was once referred to as the “Far East” and other “exotic” destinations. 

Then, the midcentury finally saw the commercialization of Halloween costumes, as more affordable box costumes went into mass production. Monsters and ghosts were still on the Halloween costume menu, but more kids (and adults) began to gravitate towards costumes that reflected current society — opting instead for specific characters like Batman. This was also a time that saw the rise of cowboy and “Indian costumes,” which were modeled after Native American ceremonial garb and are now heavily frowned upon by many, though they can still be found in stores today.

A societal shift towards awareness

The past few years have seen a massive societal shift away from the appropriation of culture, especially as the rise of social media and its ability to keep us interconnected has led to hashtag campaigns such as #notyourcostume and #mycultureisnotyourcostume. This form of social media “checking” and the rapid rise of cancel culture have raised awareness for the problematic act of cultural appropriation — and pointed quick fingers at anyone who chooses to do so any way.

Among those who have been “cancelled” this year is the former editor in chief of the esteemed culinary publication “Bon Appetit,” Adam Rapoport, who was ousted from his position after a photograph resurfaced of him dressed as a “Puerto Rican” at a Halloween party a few years back. The picture, current and former Bon Appetit staff say, was but a piece of Rapaport’s years-long pattern of mistreatment, underpayment and underrepresentation of BIPOC at the publication, but may have served as the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Higher learning institutions have also joined in to help prevent cultural appropriation on Halloween and otherwise, like Ohio University, which launched a poster campaign back in 2011 called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.” Since then other schools have opted in as well, such as the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Oregon and the University of Denver, which expanded the posters into a training program through its housing and residential education department.

But despite what seems to be a large shift away from culturally appropriative Halloween costumes in the media and online, only a slight majority of Americans, 53 percent, believe that it is unacceptable for a white person to use makeup to darken their skin to appear as a different race on Halloween, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. About a third of Americans polled in the same survey say it is always or sometimes acceptable, but the demographics of the survey are telling.

Among the 39 percent of white adults who believe the use of blackface is acceptable, those younger than 30 years old are far less accepting of its use. About a quarter of younger white Americans say it is at least sometimes acceptable, but two-thirds say blackface is rarely or never acceptable. 

“People need to consider how the costumes may be perceived by the community whose culture is being represented,” Mia Moody-Ramirez told The Washington Post last year. Moody-Ramirez co-authored the book “From Blackface to Black Twitter: Reflections on Black Humor, Race, Politics, & Gender.”

“Ask yourself the question, does the culture you’re imitating have a history of oppression? Are you benefiting from borrowing from the culture? Are you able to remove something when you get tired of it and return to a privileged culture when others can’t?” said Moody-Ramirez.

For those thinking of dressing up this year, many publications have even put together lists of costumes deemed socially unacceptable. 


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Published on Oct 30, 2020