Choosing Your Purim Costume: How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation, Stereotypes, and Racism

February 24, 2021Anita Kuykendall Stoll and Gail Wides

Purim approaches, and like every other holiday we've observed during the pandemic, it will look and be different. Yet, just as with our other Jewish and secular holidays, the meaningful rituals and traditions we can still observe give us continuity, comfort, and community. With Purim, that includes retelling the story of Purim through a reading of the M'gillahm'gillahמְגִלָּה"Scroll;" One of the five m'gillot (plural) in the Bible: Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentation and Ecclesiastes. , eating hamantaschen, singing songs, and of course, costumes. Many Jewish communities will still be celebrating Purim; at our congregation, you can order hamantaschen online, and the temple is offering a cornucopia of Purim events for all ages.

It’s still possible to dress up and celebrate Purim this year, especially if you're attending a Zoom party. And speaking of costumes, Purim is an excellent time to think about approaching costume selection with sensitivity and awareness. We’ve all been there, right? How does one decide if a costume is appropriate? What makes a costume racist or veer into cultural appropriation?

There is guidance we can take from Ohio University's “Cultures not Costumes” Halloween campaign, which urged “mindfulness in veering away from choosing costumes that marginalize or stereotype ethnicities.” Keep in mind that you can learn about and respect a culture without ‘trying it on’ and still have an amazing time at Purim.

The 2019 article “How Not to be Totally Racist This Purim” also gives us a way to check ourselves before choosing a costume for ourselves or our children. Here are a few things to consider in creating a fun and interesting costume.

  1. Be your best creative self. There is a world of costumes beyond the characters of the story of Purim: an old-fashioned iPod, a peacock, a jellyfish to name a few.
      
  2. No blackface, yellowface, brownface, or redface. Just steer away from painted faces altogether.
  3. Disability is not a costume. Be a swashbuckling pirate without adding an eye patch or hook.
      
  4. Reflect culture without mocking or poking fun. To be safe, reflect your own culture or an imaginary one.
      
  5. Avoid costumes that make assumptions about people and reinforce stereotypes. Our community is diverse, and even if it weren’t, it behooves us to choose costumes that reflect our values of kavod (respect), chesedChesedKindness , and tikkun olamtikkun olamתִּקּוּן עוֹלָם"Repair of the world;" Jewish concept that it is our responsibility to partner with God to improve the world. A mystical concept of restoration of God's holiest Name to itself and the repair of a shattered world. Often refers to social action and social justice. .

So, dress up, have fun, and bonus: You’ll be raising awareness about avoiding cultural appropriation, stereotypes, and racism when choosing a Purim costume. Chag Purim sameach!

For fun, appropriate, and easy-to-assemble costume ideas, see "Quick Costume Ideas for Purim." Visit ReformJudaism.org/Purim for more resources for celebrating the holiday. 

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