Halloween is eagerly anticipated by many. It’s an opportunity to eat candy, dress up, and revel in nerdy pastimes or scary movies. Yet all too often, enjoying Halloween is a privilege experienced by people who don’t have their identity infringed on by well-meaning, ignorant, or outright hateful celebrants. If you’re doing something on this list, you’re not excused by the spooky season — you are participating in oppression. This is not only a problem with individuals, but with industry, with costume capitalism. Yet there are steps you can take in your personal life, and we must stop buying into the discrimination we are being systemically sold. To be an ally, check out what not to do this Halloween (or any other time):
1) Being racist.
Costumes that make light of racism, or that outright perpetuate racism are unconditionally racist. This should go without saying, but even though it’s 2016, we still see costumes that ridicule #BlackLivesMatter activists, that caricature actual hate crimes, and indulge in sick stereotypes that aren’t just out of date — they were oppressive to begin with. Get out of here with your Mexican “fiesta” theme, your blackface because “but they’re my favorite character!”, and for the love of everything, don’t you dare pick up a hoodie or a pack of Skittles or a toy gun and demonstrate your blatant disrespect for children murdered by our justice system. Don’t be racist, ever, but when you’re racist on Halloween, you rub salt in a centuries-old wound. You’re demonstrating your power and privilege by evidencing just how little racism harms you when it’s killing and disenfranchising millions, and you’re saying you think it’s a joke. If they’re your favorite character, dress up as them, without appropriating their culture, dialect, or wearing blackface/yellowface etc. If you can’t dress up as them without being racist — don’t.
2) Appropriating cultures.
This is a subsection of #1, but it’s so pervasive and insidious that it warrants a number of its own. It’s become a hashtag, a tongue in cheek joke, but it’s not funny at all: my culture is not a costume. Cultural appropriation is a statement of power, saturated in ridicule. With your Tiger Lily, your Chinadoll, your guru, your sugar skulls when those cultures do not belong to you, you lay claim to something that is not yours. You make a mockery of something sacred, you perform a cheap imitation of something ancient or meaningful that you don’t even bother to try to understand. There’s no respect or admiration in appropriation. You can love a culture without claiming the right to its intricacies as your own.
When you appropriate a culture, you exercise your privilege, while participating in the oppression and marginalization of that culture. You spend the night as a caricature of a culture, wearing the bastardized fragments of something richer and fuller than you can imagine.
At the heart of cultural appropriation is colonialism. If you are white and your costume appropriates nonwhite cultures, you are saying, as your ancestors have said for millennia, that you have a right to what’s authentic and what’s costume, what’s civilization and what’s savagery, what’s human and what’s less than. You have no right to the identity you’re aping, and you’re quantifying nonwhite cultures as no more worthy of humane respect as a purely fictional creation. You ignore and spit in the face of longstanding histories of oppression, of forced assimilation: as white America did and continues to do to its Black people, its indigenous peoples, its immigrant populations.
You wear the culture as a costume and you take it off at the end of the night, because it’s all a joke to you, because you can. Nonwhite people can never erase themselves of their identities. You will never understand the fullness of their culture.
Look at what Disney is doing right now, exploiting Maori culture and literally selling brownskin suits. This is violent, and exploitative. Do not participate. This is not a victimless crime.
This follows closely on the heels of the other two. This is when you wear a culture or a character as a costume, and you hypersexualize it. This is perpetuated not only by individuals, like I said before, but by industry. The garb of a Native tribe, turned into a costume and worn by a white man is bad enough, but one on a woman, completely devoid of its original meaning, that plays into stereotypes of submission and hypersexualization, compounds the issue. You are not absolved of racism because you want to fuck people of other cultures. You are playing into more dangerous stereotypes, and marginalizing other cultures by imagining that they exist to satisfy your “exotic” sexual fantasies. Halloween is not an excuse to portray other cultures as sex objects.
It’s also not an excuse to be sexist, period. It should be established by now that the costume industry routinely reduces women to sex objects, pulling from the media and pop culture. Men can be firefighters, action heroes, or Luke Skywalker, dressed in full costumes that don’t sexualize but evoke strength and coolness. Women are offered the sexy maid, the sexy bunny, and the sexy Leia, and they’re often considered less “worthy,” cool, or desirable if they elect to wear something else, or if they don’t have the body the patriarchy seems again “worthy” to wear that costume.
Halloween all too often becomes an excuse to participate in rape culture, to reduce women to their bodies and their fuckability. This starts so young, sexualizing children and little girls. It’s simply the only option available in too many settings, and it’s not only condoned, but celebrated.
This isn’t to say at all that women can’t choose to dress a certain way and own their sexuality. This just means that women should not be forced or expected to present for the male gaze.
Allow your child to dress up as whatever character they want no matter their gender. Year round, you should allow your child to dress and present however they want, and let other people present as they want, but don’t forget on Halloween — girls can be Captain Hook, and boys can be princesses. Girls can have mustaches. Boys can wear nail polish. Gender, like sexuality, is a spectrum, and individuals are permitted to express their gender identity any day of the year.
On the other side, remember that gender identity itself is not a costume. Trans identities are not characters to mock. Do not participate in costumes or celebrations that caricature trans people, or make them the butt of a joke. Trans people are systemically killed, and putting on their identity in order to ridicule them participates in the violence, dehumanization, and degradation that results in their murders.
More Radical Reads: Beyonce Did It? : What We Mean When We Say “Cultural Appropriation”
6) Fatphobia/body negativity.
The sumo wrestler (mixing racism, appropriation, and fatphobia), the fat stripper, the fat lady, the plain old fat suit. The fat costume is a popular choice. All it is is mocking fat people. It’s ableist, and often perpetuates stereotypes of laziness and ignorance. On the other side, there are also costumes that mock eating disorders. If you’ve clicked this link, you know that The Body is Not an Apology works to combat body terrorism — all examples on this list are body terrorism, and this is no exception. Putting on a fatsuit, mocking people of other body types who are already often disenfranchised by our society, isn’t funny in the least. This isn’t a costume, it’s an attack. Fat suits tell fat people that they are a joke. Fat people are worthy of respect and love — they don’t have to prove anything to you in order to be seen as individuals, not a costume.
More Radical Reads: 7 Ways ‘Honoring’ Other Cultures Is Really Cultural Appropriation
Strait jackets, mental institution jumpsuits, canes/wheelchairs/assistive tech, hearing aids, glasses and white canes — disabilities are not costumes. People with disabilities are all around you, navigating a world not built for them in a myriad of individual ways you don’t understand. Don’t put on these outfits and consider them “accessories.” Physical and mental illness can be serious issues, and unless you have them, you can’t understand what it’s like to live with them. Don’t caricature people with disabilities, don’t wear costumes or dress up as characters who are mentally ill (“crazy”) or physically disabled. Don’t participate in their marginalization and dehumanization. We have to work to make our world, our society, and our language more accessible and inclusive. Don’t reduce disability to your party trick.
So this year and every year after, whether you’re wearing the costume, designing it, hosting a party or putting it on your child, remember that Halloween is not an excuse to be oppressive. Remember that people who call you out on appropriating or discriminating against them are not being overly sensitive, nor are they just missing the joke. If you are making a joke out of someone’s lived identity and experience, you are participating in systemic oppression. You are ridiculing serious issues, and derailing important conversations. You don’t get a pass, no matter the season — we face oppression year round. It’s not funny, it’s not clever, and it’s not creative. Enjoy the holiday if you like it! Dress as your favorite superheroes, storybook characters, or fantasy careers, but don’t let your privilege harm other people’s in the process. Be respectful, listen, and call out oppression every day of the year.
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[Feature Image: A photo of a child with a crown of red and yellow leaves and a scarf of pine leaf branches. They are also wearing a white shirt. They are smiling. Source: TCDavis]