BY JESS CLAWSON
Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love it with every earnest bone in my early-millennial body. I am that person who decorates my house with all sorts of Halloween-associated kitsch. My dad came over last month, and said he lost count of how many cauldrons I have, one of which my black cat was curled up sleeping in at the time. That’s how much I love Halloween!
My favorite Halloween costume ever was when, in sixth grade, I dressed up as the Headless Horseman and rode my saint of a black quarter horse around our very rural community carrying a pumpkin bucket with a flashlight in it. My genius mom got a huge men’s turtleneck, bulked it up enough that I could wear a helmet, and cut holes for my eyes. The costume was original, incorporated my beloved horse, and most importantly, it wasn’t appropriating anyone else’s culture.
But what is cultural appropriation? Specific to Halloween, it’s when costumes reduce other cultures to parodies. The “punchline” of the joke, or costume, is at the expense of someone’s cultural heritage.
If you’re not an indigenous American but you want to dress like an Indian princess and put “war paint” on your horse for the barn Halloween costume, then you’re appropriating the culture of indigenous people. It’s problematic because you are, for one day, putting on a costume of an incredibly marginalized group of people with a long history of being dehumanized in the United States. No one, from little kids at the barn to top riders doing Grand Prix jumper classes at indoors, should do that.
Simply put, if you wouldn’t dress in blackface (you wouldn’t), don’t dress like an indigenous person if you aren’t one.
So what do we do regarding our love of costumes with our horses? Below are some common examples of cultural appropriation during Halloween, and some alternatives to consider instead.
Not okay: Cowboys and Indians
A “Cowboys and Indians” group costume is not only degrading indigenous cultures, but it celebrates a specific historical moment in which US citizens were deputized to commit genocide against Native Americans. When you consider that the rate of sexual and domestic violence against indigenous women is much higher than any other group in American, it makes the “Sexy Indian” costumes even more horrifying.
Better Alternatives: If you want to do a classic group costume of capture and chase, go for cops and robbers instead.
Not okay: A “Gypsy”
The G word is an ethnic slur against the Romani people – a group of real, marginalized human beings in Eastern Europe. No matter how cute it is to wear a long, ruffled dress on a horse, it’s not okay to dress in this fashion. 25% of Romani people were killed in the Holocaust, and their persecution persists to this day.
Better Alternatives: If you want to express free-spiritedness or have a full, ruffled skirt on Halloween, consider an explorer or a pirate queen!
Not Okay: Exploiting Mexican Culture
We all recognize that wearing blackface is not okay, but did you realize that putting on fake facial hair and giant sombreros is brownface? Picking stereotypes to incorporate into your costume is appropriation.
Better Alternatives: If you want to dress up your pony like a Piñata, how about you make it a My Little Pony themed piñata or something that isn’t linked to a culture that you’re not a member of.
Not Okay: Black Celebrities or Stereotypes
It’s not fetch to wear fake dreadlocks or natural black hair, because it’s not unusual for actual black people to be told that they’re not adhering to work or school dress codes because of their hair. Sometimes, they are denied education or employment for their hair choices – this happens all the time. Just because it’s hair, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a version of blackface.
Better Alternatives: Just dress as any white celebrity you can think of instead.
Not Okay: Bollywood/Indian Costumes
A bindi (colored dot on the forehead) is a really specific cultural signifier that is only for Hindu and desi people, as is a tikka. They’re not fashion accessories.
Better Alternative: If you want to cover yourself in sparkles and look just as delightful, perhaps you and your horse can be a magical unicorn!
Not Okay: Voodoo Witch Doctor
Voudoun is a religion, and hoodoo is the practice of that religion. Based on the information of this entire post, you can probably guess that hoodoo practitioners are historically and currently marginalized.
Dress as a witch or the devil or some other excuse to drape yourself in black robes and paint your face and carry a cool staff or broom. OH! You could be a witch and you could dress your horse as a broom, or a toad, or a black cat, omg now I know what my costume is going to be.
This all boils down to a simple point, really: If your costume is from a marginalized culture you don’t belong to, it’s not for you. The good news is there are countless amazing options that aren’t culturally appropriative and would win a costume contest any time.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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