Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 21: Cultural Appropriation and Halloween


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Hi friends,

Mark your calendars for this Sunday, October 25 for a dialogue about cultural appropriation. We’ll be talking about mascots and Halloween costumes and tropes and the times we genuinely didn’t think about the ways our party themes could be hurtful and the excuses we have all made to justify wearing what we “could have sworn” was just a cute outfit. Per usual, all are welcome (so invite your friends!). 


We are 2 weeks out from Halloween which means it’s time we have The Talk. You know the one: the reminder that cultures, social identities, religious expressions, and markers of an oppressed status are not costumes. 

However, we want to frame today (and hopefully all of our reads), as instructive nudges and opportunities for empathy, not shame. By that we mean, don’t log off and tell everyone you know that has worn a mustache for Cinco de Mayo that they are an inherently bad person for that behavior. Instead, learn from our mistakes because implementing real change in others means modeling behaviors and calling others in to conversations about race and racism instead of calling them out. Rather, we want our readers, especially our white readers, to remember that it’s not about us or our feelings, it’s about building a world that is safer for Black, Indigenous, People of Color and everyone else from marginalized communities.


Cultural appropriation is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Cultural appropriation often trivializes or shapes into a prop the culture and significant expressions of another group, particularly an already marginalized group. 


We will have a separate newsletter about this in the coming months but for now, let’s talk about Blackface and cultural appropriation.

Beginning in the 1800s, white actors in minstrel shows would smear their faces with shoe polish or greasepaint to impersonate Black people, millions of whom were enslaved or recently emancipated at the time of the shows. The common trope was to depict Black people as intellectually inferior, act out “criminal” behavior, or portray Black people as ignorant and lazy. Blackface eventually became common in television and movies, and even today, we see remnants of Blackface culture through the tropes of Blackness portrayed by pop culture, all of which can be linked back to minstrel shows’ portrayal of what white actors thought Black culture was.

While Blackface was used to dehumanize and demean Black people; even dressing up as a caricature or trope of a Black person without painting your face Black still carries the hurt of Blackface. 


For hundreds of years, there has been a distinct difference in “the Indian” as a monolithic trope perceived by white settlers and Native Americans as real humans, members of hundreds of different tribes and cultures historically and in the present. As stated by the writers at Cultural Survival magazine, “The main difference, however, is that the “Indian” is a figment of the White imagination and is completely manipulated by it, while the Native American is a member of a sovereign nation that has been severely neglected and disrespected by White actions and policies. This difference can be seen in the fact that while the average non-native American citizen knows about war paint, rain dances, and war whoops, he or she knows very little, if anything at all, about Native American cultures and politics.”

Point being: Indigenous groups are not caricatures for our consumption or discardment. 


There is a coded understanding across the United States that when we talk about “criminals,” we are not talking about people in positions of power or people that we, personally, know that have committed crimes (though, there would be many; if we’re going purely off the laws where you live, we can guarantee you’d be a “criminal” too! We know we would be!). Dressing up as an inmate for Halloween is just a nod to Blackface (or maybe poorface, if there were one) in another form. When one in every three Black boys can expect to be incarcerated at some point in time, it’s derivative to their cultures and communities to trivialize their existence in the form of costume. The United States hosts 25% of the entire world’s prison population, so you don’t know whose parent, sibling, or friend might be incarcerated as their loved one sees you at a Halloween party or on an instagram feed. 

Similarly, there is a coded racism in “crackhead” that just doesn’t exist in regard to users of other drugs (again, one day we’ll have a full newsletter about the distinctions between crack and powder cocaine. For now, know that crack had a 100 times longer sentence than the exact same drug because the majority of its users were Black and because the majority of powder users were white). We love that the opioid crisis is giving us space and language to label addiction as an illness AND we can’t ignore the racist history of certain drugs and their portrayal. This Halloween, you wouldn’t dress up as a person who has cancer (at least we hope not), so please, extend that compassion to people with substance use disorders.

Just think before you pick a costume. Could this hurt someone else? Am I making fun of something outside of someone else’s control? Is this playing into a trope or stereotype in some form? 


Please do not darken your skin for this but yes, for those that are asking “but what if I want to dress up as Steve Harvey because I love Steve Harvey and his nice suits and Family Feud!” we say, yes, of course, you can emulate a person with other distinguishable characteristics. But ask yourself, is the joke actually rooted in that someone’s Blackness? Or is it in that sweet mustache and saying “show me ____” while your friend is dressed up as a response board and you’re having everyone else guess what “100 people surveyed” would have said?

Learning about racist impacts isn’t meant to limit our ability to have fun, but rather, it is meant to broaden the scope of who is able to have fun by making sure that no one feels threatened or mocked in the experience. It isn’t a chore to think through the potential harm of a costume, it’s a privilege. 

(Thank you to the #IAmNotACostume Campaign for this list that we’ve abridged here)

  1. Don’t sit in guilt. Be accountable and educate yourself about the culture or social identity that you appropriated and the history of the harm of appropriation to that particular group. (Per usual, Google is your friend!!)
  2. Start a conversation with someone else engaging in appropriation. It might (will) be uncomfortable. Ask why someone chose that particular costume; ask if they had considered that it could be hurtful; ask if they’d be willing to learn more about it. Explain that you’ve made a similar error, offer your own misstep to neutralize feelings of shame that often emerge when our actions are questioned.
  3. If you are met with anger or disappointment from those you appropriated in the past, try to see their point of view.Do not say you meant the costume or themed party as a compliment. Do not list all of the reasons why you were unaware it was racist or problematic. Simply say sorry and apologize for any harm you may have caused. And then figure out how you would like to move forward. Do not expect immediate forgiveness or to feel absolved of harm. It’s exhausting experiencing marginalization! It’s even more exhausting when it comes with the added duty of absolving someone appropriating your marginalized identity of their guilt after you point it out to them.
  4. Volunteer your experience to other people in your inner circle and wider community whenever it’s relevant. There are people you know that have engaged in appropriation and feel badly about it, but don’t know how to move forward. Try to be transparent with your own feelings about the experience of learning something you thought was innocent was actually pretty racist.
  5. Continue to assess how to move forward. Keep it pushing. None of us have it “figured out;” you will always need to educate and re-educate. 

As a general rule of thumb: if you have to explain why your Halloween costume “isn’t racist,” you should probably not wear that costume. 

(Yet again, thank you to the #IAmNotACostume Campaign for this list that we’ve abridged here)

  1. Your feelings are valid – whatever they might be. It’s legit to feel hurt, angry, shocked, disappointed, confused when experiencing your lived experience being perceived as a joke or costume. Even if you can’t identify exactly the source of your feeling and even if you don’t feel like addressing the harm with the person appropriating, trust your gut.
  2. Find support for yourself and your feelings – trusted friends, coworkers, mentors, supervisors, professors, etc.
  3. Remember that you not being aware of appropriation before doesn’t mean it’s your fault that it’s still happening. The responsibility of not appropriating an identity falls on the appropriators, whether their intentions were or weren’t malicious.
  4. Remember that you aren’t obligated to educate everyone, especially those who hold a privileged identity in regard to a marginalized identity that you hold. (And, you can direct them to this newsletter, where we are happy to unpack and unlearn these instincts together and take some of the burden off of you).


Spook” is derived from the Dutch word for apparition, or specter. The noun became more commonplace in Englisharound the turn of the 19th century and “over the next few decades, it developed other forms, like spooky, spookish, and of course, the verb, to spook.” 

During and after World War II, spook started to refer to Black people. The Black Army pilots who trained at the Tuskegee Institute were referred to as the “Spookwaffe”— waffe being the German word for weapon, or gun. The word “spook” became linked to Blackness, and soon enough, it became a slur.

The word spook was essentially used as a second-tier alternative to the n-word when referring to Black people, particularly Black men, who were perceived as dangerous or frightening. 
And now for honesty hour… 

This honestly feels silly to give this caveat because it’s just so frivolous to miss a word when you want to use it but know it has a harmful origin. Isn’t that just so apropos for whiteness? Feeling slightly off put every time you find out the sordid, horror-drenched, racism just barely lurking below the surface of something you vaguely liked? 

Regardless, for a long time, Emily has loved the word “spooky.” It felt fun to say! Distinctly fall! Ghoulish yet inviting, carrying just the right tone of “dry ice wafting through a DIY haunted house” for so many creepy-crawly experiences. 

And then, a few years ago, she learned what it meant, historically speaking. And she honestly felt miffed about it! Like personally inconvenienced by this new information! And she had to check her feelings of discontentment at the door because hello! Obviously, there are bigger things at play here than her personal feelings of wanting to hashtag “spooky szn” under her insta stories of her cat, Harvey, each year. However, she still felt bummed, frankly. And then she remembered what a privilege it is to be miffed learning about a word’s injurious history, rather than the person injured by a dehumanizing insult. A just world, the world Emily wants to build, requires that we understand the origins of and refrain from using historically hurtful words, especially if we’re people that would have been protected from the violence they posed in the generations before us. 

There are SO many alternatives for “spooky”: creepy, ghoulish, chilling, bloodcurdling, unearthly, eerie, frightening, spine-chilling, hair-raising, ghostly, uncanny. We believe in your ability to find a more accurate, more creative word in place of “spooky” this Halloween. 

One more thing: white friends, no one is telling us that we cannot do certain things. Rather, we know (as would many people re: cultural appropriation, use of historical harmful words, etc.) that it isn’t kind or thoughtful or antiracist to do certain things. We have free will to do whatever we want; other people, however, also have free will to react to what we do, to protect themselves, to distance themselves, etc. 


The Appeal, Emily’s favorite criminal punishment news source, has just released its guide to prosecutor and sheriff elections. If you have a prosecutor or sheriff on your ballot, make sure you look through it before you vote! Check it out here


Alright everyone, we will see you on zoom this Sunday to discuss our primary resource this week. We will send discussion questions and the zoom link on Friday. Until then, we’re (still) watching Sex Education on Neflix (arguably the best show of all time in Emily’s not-so-humble opinion) and reading Beyond SurvivalWe’ll see you Friday!
In Solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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