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.
This is not only a problem with individuals, but with industry; with costume capitalism. We must stop buying into the discrimination we’re being systemically sold. The good news is that it’s entirely possible to have fun celebrating Halloween and dressing up while divesting from the further oppression of marginalized groups.
If your Halloween costume involves anything on the following list, you’re not excused by the spooky season — you are participating in oppression. Here are seven reminders for how to check yourself and your costume ideas the whole month of October (and the rest of the year too!).
1. Racist Costumes Are Never Okay
Costumes that make light of racism or outright perpetuate racism are unconditionally racist. This should go without saying, but even though it’s 2019, 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#BlackLivesMatter activists, that caricature actual hate crimes, and indulge in sick stereotypes that aren’t just out of date — they were oppressive to begin with.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 criminal “justice” system.
It’s never appropriate to be racist, of course, but when you’re racist on Halloween, you rub salt into 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 a character or famous person is your favorite, dress up as them without appropriating their culture, dialect, or wearing blackface, yellowface, brownface, or redface. If you can’t dress up as them without being racist — just don’t.
2. Cultural Appropriation is Disrespectful and Colonizing
It’s become a hashtag, and a tongue-in-cheek joke to some, but it’s not funny at all: #MyCultureIsNotACostume.
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 and/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 could imagine.
More Radical Reads: 7 Ways “Honoring” Other Cultures Is Really Cultural Appropriation
At the heart of cultural appropriation is colonialism. If you are white and your costume appropriates non-white 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 “civilized” and what’s “savage”; what’s human and what’s less than.
You have no right to the identity you’re aping, and you’re quantifying non-white cultures as no more worthy of humane respect as a purely fictional creation.
You ignore and spit in the face of long-standing 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. People of color can never erase themselves of their identities. You will never understand the fullness of their cultures.
3. When in Doubt About Whether You’re Fetishizing a Person or Culture, Back Away
This follows closely on the heels of the first two items. This is when you wear a culture or a character as a costume and you hypersexualize it. Again, this is perpetuated not only by individuals, but by the large Halloween costume 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? That compounds the issue even further.
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.
4. Halloween Is Not an Excuse to Be Sexist
It should be established by now that the costume industry routinely pulls from media and pop culture to reduce women to sex objects. While men can be firefighters, action heroes, or Luke Skywalker, dressed in full costumes that don’t sexualize them but evoke strength and coolness, women are typically offered the sexy maid, the sexy bunny, and the sexy Leia. Women are often also considered less “worthy,” cool, or desirable if they elect to wear something else, or if they don’t have the body the patriarchy deems “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.
5. Costumes Are for Any Gender — but Being Trans Isn’t a Costume
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 and 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.
More Radical Reads: 5 Ways to Help Kids Think Outside the Gender Binary
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 identities in order to ridicule them participates in the violence, dehumanization, and degradation responsible for their murders.
6. Halloween Shouldn’t Be “Get Away With Laughing at Fat People” Day
Whether it’s the sumo wrestler (mixing racism, appropriation, and fatphobia); the fat stripper (displaying fatphobia, whorephobia, and potentially other elements such as fetishization); the fat lady (clear open sexism and mocking of fatness); or the plain old fat suit, the fat costume is a popular choice. All it is is mocking fat people.
Being a fat person for Halloween is ableist (which I’ll discuss more in a moment) and often perpetuates stereotypes of laziness and ignorance.
If you’re reading this article, you probably know that The Body Is Not An Apology works to combat body terrorism. Everything on this list is an example of body terrorism, and fatphobia is no exception. Putting on a fatsuit and mocking the bodies of people who are already disenfranchised by our society isn’t funny in the least. This isn’t a costume; it’s an attack.
Fat suits tell fat people 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 rather than a costume.
7. Playing Up Society’s Fear and Loathing of Disability for a Costume is the Pinnacle of Ableism
Strait jackets and mental institution jumpsuits; canes, wheelchairs, and other 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.
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 in the process. Be respectful, listen, and call out oppression every day of the year.
[Feature Image: Photo of two people dressed up in costumes and turned toward each other against a black background. The person on the left has light skin and blondish hair and is wearing a black kerchief and knitted shawl. The person on the right has light skin, long light brown hair, and has their face painted to resemble a Mexican sugar skull. They have fake pink and purple flowers in their hair. Source: Pixabay]