Q: Hi there! Would dressing up as Frida Kahlo for Halloween be considered cultural appropriation? I’m not sure as she’s a PoC, but I wanted to do it because she is an artist and I am an artist. Thanks!
A: Great question, and one that hasn’t yet been explored in this specific way on the blog. A white opinion on this issue only goes so far, so here is what I can say: what I’ve learned from friends, organizers, and great anti-whitewashing blogs is that the cardinal rule for white folks dressing up as famous POC for Halloween is to change everything about the way we look except our skin color. Whether it’s Frida Kahlo or Kanye West, as long as you don’t use brownface or blackface you aren’t in offensive/racist territory. I personally wouldn’t dress up as POC because I don’t want to go there, but, if you must, just stay white. Change your clothes, not your skin color.
Here’s what I can’t say: I can’t tell you that all Latin@ folks who could see your costume will find it acceptable—some might be completely opposed to a white person dressing up as Frida, some might not mind at all, and some might at least appreciate that you didn’t darken your skin if they object to the costume. I can’t speak for any of these positions, nor would I want to. I just think you should keep this in mind, and consider the meaning your costume might have to fellow human beings beyond the personal meaning it has to you—especially since Frida Kahlo has become so excessively commodified, appropriated, and mass produced as a consumer image. It’s never just a costume.
As for cultural appropriation with this issue, that’s an interesting point. My white opinion here is certainly not the only one, or the most valid, but I would honestly say cultural appropriation happens any time a person turns everyday clothing or something culturally significant into a costume. Even though you both might be artists, this is a shared talent but not a shared experience. Just as a side note: it would also be more original, interesting, and completely unoffensive if you dressed up like Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Annie Sprinkle, Barbara Kruger, or any number of white women artists. To me, the funny thing is there are so many famous white folks, then there are so many non-famous white folks who want to dress up like the few famous POC there are in the US (or those few who have become famous in the US). Not so funny at all is when Halloween turns into an Imperialist free-for-all shit show of white folks thinking we finally have a day to dress up like POC and get away with it.
So my advice is to re-think this costume choice and go with something different. And my vote is for Cindy Sherman—have you seen her work? It’s perfect costume material, and it wouldn’t be appropriating cultural experiences or clothing from an oppressed and/or stereotyped identity you do not share. But if you must, never forget the cardinal rule. Thanks again for the question.