With Halloween only two days away, I know some of our US-based readers may be scrambling for costumes, and this is really something that should go without saying, but I’m gonna say it anyway: Please don’t be racist for Halloween, okay? We here at Tiger Beatdown want you to have fun and be safe, but we also want the people around you to have fun and be safe too, and if you wear some redonkulous racist costume, you’re going to be contributing to a larger culture of racism, appropriation, and structural oppression.
And that’s not just a party buzzkill, it’s also just a life buzzkill. People live with enough reminders as it is that they’re marginalised and considered lesser-than. It’s structured into everything in our society from voter suppression through legislation and intimidation at the polls to the acute awareness that people of colour and nonwhite people are more likely to experience violent crime and less likely to receive justice. Donning a culture for a night isn’t just offensive; it also speaks to larger issues surrounding white supremacy and dominance.
If you have to ask whether a costume is racist, it’s probably racist. If you’re wondering whether it’s appropriate to dress up as a member of a different race or culture, the answer is: probably not. If your costume involves Blacking up, yellowing up, browning up (or for that matter cripping up), it’s appropriative. If it involves traditional dress or the use of coded garments, language, and accessories to represent a cultural group to which you do not belong, whether for homage or mockery, it’s offensive.
Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), a group at Ohio University, has done a great Halloween education campaign for the last two years running, featuring a series of ‘we’re a culture, not a costume‘ posters. They make the rounds every year, and I love seeing them so widely circulated and discussed. At the same time, though, I wonder if they’re reaching the right audiences, and I get frustrated with the fact that these very basic things still need to be repeated over and over again, especially among ‘progressive’ circles where people pride themselves on their anti-racism. At the same time people (rightly) mock the idea that we live in a post-racial society, they seem to struggle with the idea that they might be contributing to specific racial issues.
It’s just a costume, you might say, but the issue runs deeper than that. Adrienne at Native Appropriations points out that costume apologism has gotten so extreme that people are now trying to argue it has some sort of historical basis, and thus gets a pass. Yes, there is a long history of dressing up for Halloween and other events; but that doesn’t make racist costumes any more acceptable. It was racist then and it’s racist now. All that’s changed is the increased awareness of the issue, and the pushback from the communities affected by it.
Now people want to claim racist costumes are a homage and a teachable moment, allowing parents to talk to their children about ‘those who have gone before.’ This is especially stark with Native costumes, which, uh, compress a huge swath of indigenous peoples into one tacky costume, suggest that there are no Native Americans alive today, and oh, imply that playing Indian is somehow a great way to learn about Native culture and show your respect for Native traditions. I’d say playing Indian is a teachable moment, all right; an opportunity to be told you’re being racist and should stop.
These costumes aren’t harmless, and they come with a seriously loaded cultural context. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to dressing up as a member of another culture or social group, and the lack of awareness on these issues speaks to a larger desire to avoid institutional and structural problems. There are layers upon layers of problems with stereotyped, racist, and often hateful costumes; there’s the harm you’re directly inflicting on people who represent members of the groups you’re dressing up as, there are the stereotypes you’re perpetuating, there’s the white cultural dominance you’re reinforcing. Your hilarious Chris Brown/Rihanna costume pairing says a lot about you and your culture, and probably not what you think it says or what you’re trying to say.
The idea of dressing up as a member of another culture for the purpose of mockery, and also to hide your true self, is disturbing. What does it say about our culture when we’re more interested in poking fun at other cultures than our own on a holiday reserved for pushing outside yourself? There are so many fascinating and interesting ways to play with white identity and to challenge and mock white culture with a costume without appropriating from other cultures; and without viewing white culture as a monolith or taking cheap shots like ‘dead hooker’ (har har, hilarious) or ‘white trash.’
Halloween should be fun. It should be creative. It should be an adventure. It should be a chance to turn the lens on yourself and your own culture. It shouldn’t be an appropriative hot mess that makes people feel like crap. So be part of the group making Halloween fun for everyone, not one of the people who will hopefully get mocked on Facebook for being a racist shithead.