Halloween is the time of year you get to ignore well-intentioned parental advice to “Just be yourself!” and shed your real identity for a few hours.

But as you’re putting the finishing touches on what seems like a perfect costume, think about the message it sends, says Sika A. Wheeler, assistant director of diversity programming and engagement in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI). 

“We celebrate holidays to re-enforce cultural norms, but if we’re reinforcing stereotypes and other negative things, we’re increasing tensions, stress and misunderstandings in the campus climate,” she said. 

ODI is promoting awareness this month of cultural appropriation, meaning the adoption of imagery, materials and behaviors without their cultural context for use in ways never intended. 

To better understand appropriation and the impact it can have, ODI encourages individuals to think about the following questions: 

  • What is the original meaning of the costume? Is that meaning represented when you’re wearing it?
  • Did people from the other culture represented by the costume endure negative experiences that people from your culture have not?
  • What are the consequences of generalizing people based on their culture?
  • Who should determine the level of harm someone might experience from cultural appropriation?
  • Have you asked people from the culture in question how they feel when others engage in their cultural practices or use their cultural symbols?

If you’re covering yourself in green balloons to imitate a cluster of grapes or dressing up in honor of your favorite dog, you’re golden (if not a golden retriever). On the other hand, a costume that relies on an American Indian headdress or a samurai sword is using an important—and sometimes sacred—aspect of another culture and distorting it into an amusing party favor. Although such mocking has long been common at Halloween, it has no place in an inclusive community.

Find more on this topic from ODI here.