Costume vs. Culture: Dressing with Discretion

Halloween is this weekend and many students are excited to play dress up in the coming days. Choosing a costume is often hard work. Many find themselves with dilemmas such as “should I dress up as a Native Indian and wear that colorful feather headdress with red paint as body accessory?”; “would painting my face white and wearing a kimono as a geisha be a good Halloween costume?”; or “I can’t think of a good costume idea! Would putting two chopsticks in my hair and going as a China doll be cute?” The answer to all of the above questions is a solid “No.”


A culture identity is not a costume. Culture costumes are always a caricature of the culture that they are appropriating. They are based on deeply rooted stereotypes that often play at humor or the sexualization of a certain race. While a person who does not identify with the culture can simply put on the costume for one day and take it off at the end of the night, others have to wear the stigma for life.

Here are few tips on how to have fun this Halloween while avoiding culture appropriation: if you are considering going as another culture and/or race for Halloween, don’t do it. If you find yourself asking “is this costume culture appropriation or could it be imposing racist stereotypes by any chance?” the safest bet is choose something else.

Dress up as a cute kitty while looking gorgeous in all black. Go wild with your artistic talents and paint your face into the scariest monster imaginable (although approach this particular idea carefully). Wear a heart patterned shirt or cute dress with a crown, and when someone asks you what your costume is, proudly grin and tell them you’re the queen of hearts. A clever costume pun will be a great icebreaker at any Halloween party.

There are thousands of costume ideas that do not involve reinforcing racial stereotypes during this time of the year. So get creative, have fun, be safe and remember: cultures are not costumes.


Sue Liang is a contributing writer. Email her at


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