Is cultural appropriation the real halloween horror story?

In recent years, there has been a spike in awareness regarding cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes, leading to a number of universities cracking down on the specifications for what students can wear at this time of year. 

Most people are aware of the ban the Student’s Union here at UEA have enacted, but the push to reduce cultural appropriation in costumes goes much further than this. 

The National Union of Students (NUS) have drawn attention to this by publicising the slogan ‘Don’t let Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Transphobia and Ableism be the real Horror this Hallowe’en’. This follows the University of Sheffield’s Students Union creating and distributing posters with the tagline ‘my culture is not your costume’ to contribute to the wider message of ‘check your costume’, as coined by the NUS. Triviality can pave the way for people to stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable on this one-off annual holiday, which is the mentality the NUS are trying to defeat.  

Their statement, published on Monday, reads ‘In recent years, we have seen offensive costumes being sold, including costumes that appropriate race and culture, perpetuate sexist stereotypes and make light of the experiences of Trans people and those with disabilities’. 

But on the following Friday, the Women’s Officer at Sheffield SU emphasises the campaign ‘does not enforce any ban. Instead, it’s aimed at being an educational campaign’ which means it is not technically enforced and students still have freedom. 

The repercussions, however, remain unclear, so it is a fully effective deterrence method. 

The difficulty with such a phenomenon is the concept of offence is arbitrary. A costume that perpetuates the culture or identity of another group or individual may offend some which it applies to and not others, as some may see the trivial and fun side of the costume. 

Some members of the affected group, however, may not see the humour behind it and take offence. 

An example which applies to me, would be costumes related to Scottish culture. Wearing a kilt, for me, would not be offensive, because I do not have strong enough ties to Scotland to foster strong enough feelings and facilitate me being offended. 

I can, however, see where this could cross the line for some. If it so happens that a Halloween costume featured a family tartan, for example, and the person were to act drunk to draw on the stereotype that Scotland has a strong drinking culture, then I can see where offence would be justified.  

The problem is, a lot of people who dress up for Halloween will not see the offence in the costumes they were due to their detachment from the culture which is being perpetuated. 

In their mind, the act is harmless. To others, it is offensive, and the fact that the offender is blind to their mistake is the icing on the cake. 

Even when some see the act as a joke, this provides a blanket of safety which gives them the legitimacy they need, but one does not represent all. 

The fact of the matter is, even playing it safe and choosing to avoid any potentially offensive costumes does not really limit one’s options. Plenty of people, the majority in reality, dress outside of the limits imposed by Students Unions across the country without a problem, so even if you believe the rules and restrictions to be stingy, the limit is not as broad as you may believe it to be.

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About Author

Sam Hewitson

Travel Editor - 2019/20

Editor-In-Chief - 2020/21

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May 2022
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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