With Halloween approaching, and office parties soon to commence, we thought it would be a good idea to explore some of the dos and don’ts of Halloween costume etiquette in the workplace.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is when somebody uses something belonging to a culture that is not their own: a hairstyle, religion, a type of garment. There are, of course, instances where cultures are mutually shared. This is called cultural exchange, and often involves a general and inoffensive sharing of music, art, cooking, or other cultural elements.
The boundaries between cultural exchange and appropriation may seem fluid, but there is a line, and it’s important to know when you’ve crossed it. At its most obvious, cultural appropriation occurs when someone adopts an element from a culture that has been discriminated against. It is often done in a mocking or exaggerated way, and it offends members of that culture—even if the offense is not intended.
During the 2013 MTV Movie Awards, Selena Gomez performed with a cadre of Bollywood dancers. In itself, the performance could have been regarded as a creative cultural exchange, but many say Gomez crossed the line by wearing a bindi—a red dot in the center of her forehead that has special significance for the Hindu religion. Kendall Jenner wearing her hair as an afro during a recent photoshoot for Vogue was met with similar criticism.
Other Ways Your Costume Might Offend
When it comes to office Halloween parties, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Taking the time to plan your Halloween costume and being mindful of who you might offend is important to respecting your coworkers and maintaining a professional image. You might not think your costume directly offends anybody in the office, and you might have the industry’s most casual, laid-back office environment. However, the wrong costume can send the wrong message and leave a bad impression.
There are other ways to offend that don’t necessarily include cultural appropriation. Dressing up as controversial figures, either fictional or real, can spark unnecessary contention. Before it was pulled from its website, a lingerie company released a “Brave Red Maiden” Halloween costume. The costume, clearly mirroring the outfit worn by characters in the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” caused an uproar on social media. Dubbed the “Sexy Handmaid” costume, it was criticized for objectifying characters from a television show about the objectification of women.
While it’s clearly a bad idea to wear a “sexy” Halloween costume to work, in this case, outrage over the inappropriate costume was compounded by the fact that it seemingly made light of a show that addresses sensitive issues of misogyny, sexism, and discrimination. The themes in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are triggers for many people, and that’s the thing about a risqué costume: you never know who you might be triggering.
Here are some helpful tips for staying mindful when planning your costume for the office Halloween party:
1. Avoid costumes that borrow from the traditional garb of another cultural group. For example, no Native American outfits if you are not Native American.
2. Don’t dress up as a celebrity of a different ethnicity than yours.
3. Don’t wear a costume that uses religious iconography.
4. If you want to dress up as a fictional character of another ethnicity, do so without mimicking their ethnicity. So, if you want to be “Scandal’s” leading character, Olivia Pope, do not do blackface.
5. Avoid dressing up as a political figure or a controversial person from history. No presidents or famous mass murderers.
6. Gratuitous blood or gore might trigger someone, so keep your zombie costume PG.
7. “Sexy,” vulgar, or crude costumes are, more often than not, inappropriate.
There are so many creative ways to dress appropriately for an office Halloween party. You can still be creative, funny, or scary without appropriating another person’s culture or offending someone’s sensibilities. Halloween is a time for celebration—a fun day that everyone should enjoy, but that enjoyment should never be at the expense of someone else. Chances are, if you think a Halloween costume could be construed as offensive, it probably is.
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