Halloween is almost upon us, and nothing is scarier on a 2017 college campus than cultural appropriation. Accordingly, the Penn Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life (OFSL) held a public meeting instructing students about which Halloween costumes are offensive to others.
When it comes to Halloween costumes, the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can be subtle. Learning and understanding the values behind cultural practices before donning your costume is a must. Nuance is key. Minimizing, erasing, exploiting, or taking cultures out of context should not be tolerated. Additionally, a member of the culture in question should probably be present and involved.
Consequently, costumes such as Pocahontas (or any Native American), a sombrero-sporting “Tequila Bandito,” or a calavera from the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos are almost always unacceptable attire for any white person. According to the OFSL’s Diversity and Inclusion Board, such depictions constitute racist cultural appropriation, in some cases akin to wearing blackface. One aghast audience member wondered aloud at who would commit such atrocities, to which board members offered “Racists? Trump supporters?”
A more debatable question was the acceptability of dressing as Donald Trump. Clearly, such a costume would never be acceptable if it were in support of Trump. A costume mocking Trump would certainly be preferable, but could still be “triggering” and make other partygoers feel unsafe.
On the contrary, mockery of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is a completely different question due to the systems of power in the United States. While acknowledging that Obama once held the most powerful office in the world, board members reminded the audience that blackness is always the victim of power imbalances. Thus, whereas dressing as Trump could communicate disagreement with his policies, dressing as Obama would communicate disagreement with his skin color.
Board members also discussed how other costumes could be triggering, such as Amy Gutmann, a white woman in a position of power who represents a problematic institution with a history of subjugating people of color.
So, to avoid offending anyone this Halloween, dressing as someone from a different culture is not OK; dressing as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Amy Gutmann is usually not OK; and dressing as Donald Trump might be OK, but only if you’re mocking rather than supporting him and you know for sure his mere caricature won’t trigger anyone present.