Cultural Appropriation and Halloween

Hula Girl Costume
No. Just. No.

Ok, Iʻm finally going to write it. I am NOT OK with the “hula-hula girl” costume.

“Halloween as a holiday has a history of being focused on inversion of power,” says professor Susan Scafidi of Fordham University. She is the author of Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. “It’s about turning the daily world on its head.” People dress up as celebrities, cops, politicians, and other powerful figures, and it’s funny! But when you dress up as a culture that you are currently oppressing, or have subjugated in the past, you’re not inverting anything, you’re just kicking them when they are down — or, as Scafidi says, “reinforcing current power structures in an offensive way.”

So, you realllllllly like hula, and you reallllllllly want to be a hula dancer for Halloween. Here is my suggestion. Learn something. This applies not only to hula dancers, but to any “ethnic” costume.

Let’s look at the word “costume.” Generally speaking, a costume is what you put on when you pretend to be someone or something other than who or what you are. When I dance hula, I am not in a costume. I am wearing regalia.

Image by Kaleo Wheeler
“Hula is like a breath of life exquisitely embodied and expressed in patterns of movement and sound.” Image by Kaleo Wheeler.

Regalia” is special attire you wear for a specific purpose. Hula comes from a sacred source. Hula regalia, like the regalia of a minister or priest, is not used for common, everyday things. It is reserved for special, even sacred, occasions.

A generic costume, based on stereotypes of ethnicity, is inappropriate. The “Hulahula Girl,” the “Drunken Irishman,” the “China Doll,” all portray people from the viewpoint of the top of the power structure.

Instead, opportunities for learning and growth can come when a person finds an exemplary individual and chooses to portray that person. Take Back Halloween! is a wonderful website with great suggestions!

In short: Halloween (All Hallows Eve) is the eve (evening before) All Hallows Day (aka All Saints Day). Many old traditional calendars (the Hawaiian and Jewish among them) begin the new day at dusk, not midnight. We still remember this tradition in the celebration of Christmas Eve and Halloween.

Many years ago Halloween, Samhain, and Calan Gaeaf, were conflated. In earlier times, people dressed as Aos Sí (later deemed demons, goblins, etc. by the Christian church), and went about from dusk collecting offerings. The offerings were given in hopes of a safe passage through the dangers of winter. After the conflation, the costumes began to evolve.

Up into the early 20th Century, ghoulish and generally creepy costumes were the norm. Soon, in the US, costumes included Indians, Gypsies, and other marginalized people who were demonized by the dominant culture. By the mid-20th Century, costumes started including cartoon characters from the new-fangled TV shows.

Today, Halloween costumes are pretty much “anything goes.” But we CAN improve public discourse and dialog through our costumes, and still have fun!

Have a happy and safe All Hallows Eve!
Kumu Leilehua