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Halloween Costumes and Cultural Appropriation: Your Role as a Social Worker

ITSW Blog Pic (Blur)By Carissa Perry, MSW Student

Although college students may have grown out of trick-or-treating, many undergraduate and graduate students still dress up for Halloween. There is usually at least one occasion in October that requires a costume, be that a church activity, a costume party, or an office tradition.

Choosing a costume is never easy, and it gets harder as you get older. When you are younger, it’s normally pretty simple: a funny cartoon, a spooky character, or a favorite superhero. As you get older, you choose between a funny costume, a culturally relevant costume, a scary costume, an attractive costume, or a witty costume.

Regardless of which costume you choose, you should also keep social justice in mind. This means you must avoid mimicking another culture, ethnicity, or race other than your own.  The costume then becomes cultural appropriation, which manifests and creates oppression. White people have a history of oppressing many different groups, including taking land from Native Americans and enslaving African Americans. Even though you may think “time has passed” and “nobody actually thinks like that anymore,” it’s deeply offensive for a White person to “dress up” as a Native American, or wear black face, when White people have already caused so much pain for Native Americans and African Americans in history.

It doesn’t matter how obvious or intentional the discrimination and racism is; even small acts of cultural appropriation contribute to cultural and racial oppression. By implying that a culture, ethnicity, or race is something that can be easily taken off or copied, you are devaluing that culture, ethnicity, and/or race, and ignoring your privilege in your ability to “put on” a culture for one night and “take it off” when you’re done. This very idea perpetuates the systemic racist notion that being White is the “norm” and everyone else qualifies as “the other.”

The Center for Multicultural Affairs at Duke University is currently doing a media campaign titled “Our Cultures Are Not Costumes.” The images depict people who identify as certain cultures or races holding pictures of people wearing costumes of that culture or race. The images are powerful; check them out here:

The NASW Code of Ethics says social workers have the responsibility to advocate for social justice and fight against social injustice, which includes fighting against oppressive and racist actions and comments. As social workers, it’s our responsibility to have the difficult conversation about race and cultural appropriation with our friends when they tell us they are dressing up as Pocahontas or a mariachi band. It’s probably not the best choice to call out every problematic costume at a party, but it is important for social workers to talk to their friends and family members about cultural appropriation and how it perpetuates oppression.

Carissa Perry is a second-year MSW student and a student representative for the Initiative for Transformative Social Work (ITSW) within the University of Utah College of Social Work. For more information about the ITSW, email:

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Last Updated: 12/12/23