Life & Style

A guide of what NOT to wear this Halloween

What NOT to wear this Halloween

As the holiday approaches, the recurring problem of cultural appropriation begins to manifest.

A man stands before a Halloween scene featuring a ghost, a witch, a skeleton and a zombie. He contemplates costumes that exhibit cultural appropriation.
Cole Ross

Halloween, with its tradition of spooky costumes, unfortunately, sees a surge in outfits that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Cultural appropriation occurs when a person within a dominant culture adopts aspects of a marginalized culture without acknowledgment of its origins or its cultural significance.

As avid consumers of culture, we see cultural appropriation all the time. Appropriation has been apparent in pop culture for decades. Selena Gomez performed her 2013 hit “Come and Get It” wearing a bindi and performing Bollywood-inspired dance moves in the music video. In the same year, Katy Perry walked the red carpet in a geisha-inspired costume. We’ve also seen it on the big screen: in 2016’s La La Land Black characters are few in numbers in a movie about jazz, a genre of their own creation.

Appropriation runs rampant at music festivals like Coachella, as eager festival-goers adorn themselves with tribal facepaint, feathered headdresses, cornrows, beads and bindis. We’ve also seen cultural appropriation in the stereotyped-based imitations of other cultures, as illustrated by Ariana Grande’s use of African American Vernacular English in songs like “7 Rings” and Iggy Azalea’s assumption of a “Blaccent.” Though the term “cultural appropriation” wasn’t coined until the 1980s, it has been around for centuries.

The gravity of cultural appropriation is often undermined by the belief that adopting elements of another culture is a well-intentioned act of intercultural exchange. Although they might be rooted in appreciation, representations of other cultures that lack context and proper acknowledgment ultimately cause more harm than good.

Dr. Srivi Ramasubramanian, a Syracuse University professor specializing in race and gender media, expressed how it’s possible to balance the spirit of the holiday and remaining respectful.

“Halloween can be great occasion to express our playful, creative and fun selves,” Ramasubramanian said. “At the same time, it is best to avoid costumes that make fun of or ridicule other groups—especially if they are caricatures with exaggerated features or stereotypical attire. If you are unsure, consult with a member of the group that your costume isn’t offensive or disrespectful.”

Authentic cultural dress and motifs also function as the intellectual property of cultural groups, meaning revenue streams are lost when these are appropriated. While the perpetrator profits off the style monetarily and socially, marginalized groups continue to be subject to discrimination.

In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 58% of American adults deemed wearing another culture’s traditional dress as a costume to be always or sometimes acceptable.

When picking a Halloween costume this year, make sure you consider what you’re portraying and how others may be affected. Here are nine costumes to avoid this year: 

Anything involving Blackface

Blackface is when a non-Black individual applies dark paint or makeup to their face and skin to portray a different skin tone. This practice dates back to the Shakespearean theater when white entertainers would apply burnt cork and grease to their faces to make a mockery of Black people. Blackface is problematic because it involves the use of imbalanced power dynamics to imitate and mock Black people, usually based on stereotypes. 


Ninjas are often depicted in pop culture as dark, stealthy fighters. Ninjas, or shinobi, were the highly revered agents of feudal Japan. The shinobi were trained in the martial art ninjutsu, which involved tactics such as espionage, guerilla warfare and assassination.

Many feel that the contemporary use of the word “ninja” strips it of its cultural roots, as it’s now used to refer to anyone who’s highly skilled at something. Costumes also tend to be based on pop-cultural portrayals of ninjas, neglecting the true history of these agents.


Geisha costumes are often a hypersexualized depiction of traditional Japanese kimonos and Japanese entertainers. Revealing too much of the neck or breasts is considered highly disrespectful in Japanese culture, which values modesty and humility.

Throughout much of Japanese history, the colors and motifs incorporated into the kimono have represented parts of the wearer’s identity, such as political affiliation, family membership and status. Even the dyes carry deep, metaphorical meanings. Kimonos are also believed to bring about good fortune when worn for festivals, ceremonies and other special occasions. 

Native Americans

“Native American” costumes often illustrate stereotypes and portray indigenous cultures as historical relics rather than the vibrant and active communities they truly represent.

These costumes often portray hypersexualized Native women, a group already at a heightened risk of sexual violence. Studies reveal that 1 in 3 Native women face sexual violence in their lifetime. Halloween costumes that over sexualize Native women perpetuate inaccurate and offensive stereotypes, reducing the rich indigenous culture to distorted caricatures.

Hula Dancer

Hawaiian and Polynesian dress are often culturally appropriated through costume. This is particularly true of the “Hula Girl” costume, featuring a grass skirt and coconut bra. Hula is a traditional Hawaiian dance with a history spanning several centuries.

Hula has historically served as a way for Hawaiian and Polynesian groups to preserve the stories of people and their islands. While it continues to do so, it also serves as a means of self-expression and personal healing. 

Belly Dancers

Halloween costumes that intend to represent Middle Eastern culture often portray Arab women as belly dancers. “Belly dancing” is actually a misnomer; raqs sharqi, the “dance of the East,” refers to a collection of dances that originated in Egypt and eventually spread to other North African and Middle Eastern nations.

Dances usually involve movements that articulate the upper body and hips but also involve arm movements and footwork. Costumes tend to focus on the Western world’s sexual portrayal of raqs sharqi. 

Day of the Dead Skulls

In Mexican culture, calaveras, or sugar skulls, are used to honor family members and loved ones who have passed during Día de los Muertos celebrations. The Day of the Dead skull originates from Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada’s drawing of La Catrina in 1910, which intended to communicate the idea that everyone is equal in death.

Day of the Dead skull costumes diminish the cultural significance of the calavera tradition, as they commodify images that are intended to honor Mexican cultural identity and deceased loved ones.  

Voodoo Witch Doctors

Voodoo is an overarching term that refers to religions that combine elements of Catholicism and West African Vodun. It was initially created by African slaves who had been influenced by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Voodoo and variations of it are practiced in Louisiana, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Haiti, where it is one of the official religions.

The foundational principle of Voodoo is that everything is spirit. Pop cultural depictions of the religion, however, are based on racist perceptions of Black people and present it as dark magic involving witchcraft and bloodletting, the withdrawal of blood to cure and prevent illness. Voodoo witch doctor costumes often misrepresent the religion with portrayals that aim to vilify manbos and oungans (Voodoo priests and priestesses) and present Voodoo as “black magic”.


Many people are unaware that “g*psy” is a racial slur used to refer to the Romani, or Roma, people. The Roma originated as a nomadic group of people in northern India. When they migrated from India in the 11th Century, the Roma were mistaken for Egyptians, hence the term “g*psy.” The term has been used to oppress the Roma, along with enslavement, persecution and violence.

Costumes typically include inaccurate portrayals of the Roma as fortune tellers and pirates. Such costumes tend to be highly sexual in nature. Similar to Native costumes, costumes that depict the Roma in this way lack sensitivity toward their history of sexual violence and oppression.

As members of a world in which we will undoubtedly encounter people different from us, it is important to continuously educate ourselves on topics related to diversity and cultural sensitivity. As you go about your Halloween festivities, keep in mind how some costumes can contribute to the lasting harm of marginalized communities. 

When you’re choosing a costume this Halloween, it’s important to avoid these costumes to respect and honor the diverse traditions of other cultures.