As if the world isn’t spooky enough, it’s almost Halloween! Its origins date back to Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts (History) – although many other cultures have holidays to honor the dead. This practice has been adapted and evolved throughout history to what we see now in modern-day culture.
Unfortunately, it seems that Halloween is the one day that people believe they can get away with wearing harmful and disparaging costumes based on marginalized communities. This year is unique in that we’re amidst the downturn of a racial reckoning and a heated and contested election cycle. But that’s all the more reason to analyze how racial stereotypes are promoted through the holiday festivities.
• Research your costume before making a decision. Use this as a guide to what not to wear.
• Choose a Halloween costume from your past that was inappropriate. Spend this weekend learning the real history of the community it comes from.
Before diving into Halloween costumes, we must stop asking what’s actually racist and what’s kind of racist. Racist is racist. And all of it upholds systemic oppression. But society has trained us to believe that there’s an acceptable form of racism. Most white supremacy perpetuates systemic oppression is overlooked, and only the most violent and blatant forms are condemned. This is often depicted using an iceberg: a small percentage of racist and oppressive actions are visible “above the surface,” whereas most are underwater.
So let’s start with the basics: the overt. Don’t wear blackface or change your skin to match the race of the person you’re dressing up as unless you’re going as the Hulk. Don’t dress as racial or ethnic stereotypes, especially “dressing up as an entire people instead of a specific person” (Bustle). Don’t appropriate any cultures or beliefs. Don’t wear a costume that makes fun of a physical or mental disability. Also, let’s not dress up for anyone known for their racist ideologies, OK? Because pretending to be a white supremacist is an act of white supremacy. So the KKK and Nazis are a hard no. But so are colonizers, references to incarceration or immigration, and dressing as sports mascots that uphold racial stereotypes.
Treating other people’s cultures as a costume is the entire problem. It’s a problem if you are making fun of that culture; it’s a problem if you think you are lauding that culture.”Elie Mystal for The Nation
And then there are some costumes that aren’t overtly racist but are racially charged. I’d give some deep thought as to whether dressing up as law enforcement is appropriate, especially if you are an adult. You could easily be mistaken for the real thing and make others feel unsafe. Dressing up as coronavirus during a global pandemic, after millions lost their lives to it, is very tactless. Also, going as a serial killer or mass shooter not only glorifies them and their violent acts, it trivializes and mocks the harm they committed against their victims.
It’s not lost on me that some of the more popular Halloween costumes parody marginalized people and cultures that endured persecution and genocide throughout history, are still scapegoated for racist ideologies, and are often impoverished. So consider the power and privilege that may influence the decision to choose one of these costumes. While it might just be a fun Halloween costume for you, there are actual people whose deity, religion, or culture you are impersonating and whose plight and trauma you are disregarding.
Many people ask where the line is for cultural appropriation regarding Halloween costumes based on fictional characters in the media. Here, it becomes more challenging (although we must keep in mind that the media itself isn’t always a gold standard of cultural recognition).
Characters like Moana or Black Panther have distinct ties to marginalized communities but are also pop culture figures more broadly. Whether people can dress up as these characters is hotly contested. Read more on Black Panther in the New York Times. But it doesn’t always make it OK. When you wear the costume, are you conscious of the narrative beyond the Disney storyline that the character represents? What’s your relationship to a specific community, associated with the character? These are the questions I wish someone had asked me when I wore the costumes mentioned in my intro.
Generally speaking, if you’re going to do the work to plan your costume, a quick internet search on how it will be perceived should be a part of your planning. But what often gets lost in these conversations is what else to do. Halloween weekend can be a time when we commit to learning more about the communities that are appropriated. This can be incredibly powerful with children since understanding various communities’ histories builds empathy, which is often a more lasting connection than discipline. Halloween isn’t about trick-or-treating if it doesn’t treat us equitably.
• Halloween is culturally a time when many people wear costumes that include blackface or cultural appropriation, in addition to other oppressive or racially charged attire.
• Whether overt or covert, all forms of white supremacy are harmful and contribute to the racist world we live in today.
• We must move from dressing as characters to recognizing the unique cultures and identities of those we wish to impersonate.