What we can learn about culture from Halloween

By Lanthorn Editorial Board | 10/30/17 1:16am

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At college campuses across the U.S., Halloween is one of the biggest "party" holidays of the year, and Grand Valley State University is no exception. Halloween offers the rare opportunity for students to dress in outlandish costumes without breaking basic social rules. Couple that inhibition with alcohol, bass-heavy music and "spooky"-themed decor, and you have all the ingredients for a classic college party.

Halloween isn't just about dressing up and drinking oneself into oblivion, though. At an academic institution especially, there is also the opportunity to learn about different cultures and their related celebrations.

For example, in Mexico, the Day of the Dead is recognized to remember deceased loved ones. Interestingly enough, while death is viewed somberly in the U.S., this holiday treats it as another stage in the circle of life, allowing participants to use celebration as a way to move on. 

Several different departments at GVSU are working together to bring this cultural celebration to campus Wednesday, Nov. 1, providing another way for students to look at death-themed holidays and learn about other cultures. The event will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the lobby of the Glenn A. Niemeyer Learning and Living Center. 

Halloween also offers an opportunity for GVSU community members to consider the implications of wearing costumes intended to represent individuals of different cultures. At what point does dressing up as someone from a different ethnic background, for example, cross over from cultural appreciation to cultural appropriation? 

While adults should choose their costumes carefully out of respect for other cultures, this debate occasionally includes younger children who want to dress up as their favorite television and movie characters. One particular costume that has caused some controversy this year is the Disney character Moana. 

Loved by many young viewers, Moana is a Polynesian girl admired for her bravery. While it is perfectly innocent for children to choose this costume, activists warn that allowing children to dress up as Moana can be perceived as offensive. Sachi Feris, a parent activist, took to her blog to slam the Moana costume as "making fun of someone else's culture."

This outrage then sparked a wider conversation about whether or not it is okay to "celebrate" the culture of another with a Halloween costume. Some Twitter users responded to Feris' statement by saying that if a character is represented in a positive and respectful way, then it's okay. Others believe that parents telling their kids that dressing up as these idolized characters is racist is in fact forcing racism on their children.

The conversation changes a bit when we look at this same issue played out among adults dressing up on Halloween. For example, Kim Kardashian dressed up as the late singer/actress Aaliyah, a look she proudly showcased on her Twitter Saturday, Oct. 28. 

Many social media users found Kardashian's look to be racist and offensive, considering that Aaliyah was African-American and Kardashian is half Armenian. According to Metro, one person responded by saying that Kardashian looked "extra tan." Other users defended Kardashian, saying that she had the respect not to wear blackface, so it was okay. 

As a general rule of thumb, the distinction that separates cultural appropriation from character appreciation is whether or not someone is dressing up as a distinct character or a generic member of a particular race or ethnic background. It's okay to dress up as a specific character you admire, as long as you're not going so extreme in your look that you're using blackface, for example, or other long-condemned practices. 

But dressing up as a generic, unnamed member of another cultural background or race is a definite "no-no." If you aren't Native American, you shouldn't be dressing as a "generic" Native American. If, however, you want to dress up as Pocahontas specifically because of some connection you have to that character, that's a different story.

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