Campus Learning

Their Culture is Not Your Costume

By Devin Hall, Assistant Director of Prevention Education

With Halloween right around the corner, individuals are lining up at the local party store to get a last-minute costume. You may be asking yourself, should I go to the party as my favorite Disney movie character or maybe join my friends as Crayola crayons? Maybe you and a group of friends are going out as the cast of Parks and Rec?

Oftentimes, our costume reflects the events or parties we plan on attending. As we embrace this fun-filled season of pumpkin spice and costumes, it is important that we reflect on our choices and how they may impact those around us. Let’s not make our costumes about cultures. Avoid harmful and culturally offensive attire that represents cultural symbols, items and material in a context of historical inequalities. The same goes for social events; avoid attending or hosting social events that use other cultures’ history and values as a pun or theme.

Viewed as funny, ironic, trendy or an opportunity to be retweeted by Barstool is not acceptable behavior. Dressing up as a Native American, painting your face with a charcoal mask to look like another race or dressing as a homeless person is not only offensive, but it’s not reflective of the values of the real, strong women we know members strive to be.

Too often, when selecting social event themes, organizations have walked the line of creating an environment for cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation refers to a “particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”

Cultural appropriation, stereotypes and harmful attempts at humor are not required to have a successful event. How can we plan better, intervene when something isn’t right and take responsibility for harm in our communities? If we think before we joke – we can still joke.

Worried an upcoming event or themed party may be culturally insensitive? There is a process to help you make better choices and avoid harmful themes and costumes. In partnership with Jessica Pettitt, author of Good Enough Now and professional speaker on inclusivity, here is a resource guide to assist your chapter in the event planning process. This discussion guide prompts you to slow down and ask yourself and/or the planning committee a few questions. Here are just a few to think about:


Who is the target group of the themed event or costume? Is it an inappropriate joke? (The answer here isn’t a person’s name, but the characteristics of the people or group.)


Who is intentionally or unintentionally associated with the theme?


Look at the actual words or images you are using. Does anything make you say, “Wow, I probably shouldn’t say or do that?”


Is the humor at someone else’s expense? Do better. Making fun of yourself or your group(s) is usually safer (though you should remember that your chapter is only one piece of our organization).


If you slow down enough to ask yourself these questions, you will often make better choices. Focus your limited time and energy on the things that uplift you, your community and your organizations.

“You are not responsible for your first thought. But you are responsible for your second thought and your first action… that is where your power lies,” says Joe Gerstadt, diversity and inclusion consultant and author

If you have questions or are looking for additional resources to help your chapter make better choices about costumes or event themes, please reach out to Devin Hall, assistant director of prevention education, at

One thought on “Their Culture is Not Your Costume

  1. Such an important reminder and totally inline with our Back Stops! So thankful I got to see Jessica Pettitt at Volunteer Summit (Thanks Alpha Chi Omega for the professional development!)

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