Are cultural Halloween costumes problematic?
November 1, 2015
Because It’s Pretty Damn Easy Not To
Alexandra “the womyn” Friedman
Alexandra is an Ecology Major during the day and Social Justice Wario during the night. (Yes, she dons a Wario outfit and slices the throat of chauvinist men.) You will probably find her ranting about the drug war during non-class hours or hula hooping in overly conspicuous places.
Before I begin this argument, I would like to clarify that I don’t have particularly vehement feelings about cultural appropriation in general. I, as a white female, don’t quite know what it’s like to experience appropriation - which may contribute to my relative indifference to the subject. But what I do know is that there are a lot of Halloween costumes we can choose from (and let’s be real here - 90% of us girls are going to end up as cats anyway).
It’s relatively intuitive to know what might be offensive to wear as a Halloween costume, which is proof alone that we
have some idea that there are costumes we should and should not wear. We don’t dress in blackface anymore because it is trivializing years of historical oppression and making a joke out of being black, which is offensive. We don’t dress up as Nazis for a similar reason - it makes a joke out of oppression. Why would wearing a Native American headdress be any different? Throwing blankets covered in biological warfare to systematically kill Native Americans would _probably _be considered oppressive by today’s standards (considering telling a girl she looks pretty is oppressive according to some people’s criteria). Why must we specifically decide to wear outfits crudely resembling those we have stepped on in our recent history?
Most people would not find anything offensive about wearing a taco, a samosa, or a bowl of white rice to Halloween, although these are also symbols of culture. However, when I mention wearing a Mexican mustache, a turban, or a straw conical hat, most people’s intuitions feel a little bit uncomfortable with these images included in a costume. Why do we internally “cringe?” These objects have been included in derogatory slurs, images, or caricatures of immigrants. I’ve never heard anyone call someone else a “f**ing taco”. We like tacos. It’s not _just _the images of foreign cultures that are automatically offensive; it’s the combination of characteristic images being used to elicit prejudice that makes us feel a little squirmy. You know what you probably shouldn’t wear.
But even if you don’t believe that wearing a Halloween costume isn’t important enough to really offend someone, the bottom line is that it’s honestly not that hard. There are a million Halloween outfits someone could wear. Are you really that lazy that you have to dress up like a standing Mariachi toy? Are you really that bothered that despite the fact that I could find you twenty different “sexy police” costumes themselves, we’re asking you to avoid maybe a total of five costumes that misrepresent years of culture being destroyed by our ancestors? For one night? Even if you think you are glorifying or admiring this person’s culture by wearing their clothing, you are probably wearing it wrong. And even if you wear it right - consider the fact that you, as someone who doesn’t face discrimination for wearing this costume, get to wear these outfits to the much glee and approval of others, while those who the culture belongs to face prejudice and marginalization for being “ethnic”. Being exotic isn’t cool when you have to do it every day.
The amount of inconvenience changing your costume causes you compared with the obvious amount of distress, annoyance, and outcry it is causing those being marginalized (even when some of those people are clearly overzealous) is minimal. Who cares if some people take it too far? Are you that prideful that you have to defend yourself by wearing a sombrero?
As a feminist, there are plenty of women who I consider to be far too radical for my liking. They advertise that all men should die, all sex is rape, and all pornography is vile. Does that mean I should dismiss feminism because there are people who are insulting activities that I enjoy? I choose to retain the beliefs I both believe to be reasonable and do not denigrate others. But if an extremely opinionated feminist approached me and asked her only to address her as a “womyn” or else she would have a panic attack due to being classified as an oppressive gender, I would. Because I wouldn’t feel like dealing with the consequences, and it’s pretty easy to fit this need. If she told me that I would have to do 20 pushups, I wouldn’t - because that is highly inconvenient for me.
The fact that I am even being asked to write an article about this topic is evidence enough that this is important enough to be discussed. So who really cares if you believe you are wronging those who are marginalized? It’s not that hard. Pick a different costume. I’ll find you one.
Not Offensive, Just for Fun
Salvatore is a nineteen year old caffeine-addict whose desire to be a writer is equally rooted in Jack Kerouac’s romanticized mishaps and Kanye West’s digital culture. To truly understand him is to know that New York will forever be home and marinara sauce is indigestible unless it was cooked by his mother.
It’s Halloween season and therefore fair to assume that Americans nationwide are stocked up or munching on on Hershey’s snack-sized variety packs as we speak. We also could assume that the more creative consumers are somewhere standing over a sewing machine, carefully crafting their combinations of rubber masks and cheap linen. According to Google Trends, the most popular costume choices this year are superheroes and Star Wars characters, but it’s an age-old tradition that the most bold personalities prove themselves on October 31st. A new tradition is that costume-boldness seemingly going too far.
We are living in the age of sensitivity, a time when tolerance is considered among the most sacred of personality traits. Highly-esteemed institutions such as the University of Michigan spend thousands of dollars to campaign against the casual use of words like “gay” and “crazy.” We are, at the given moment, hyper-conscious of our political correctness. For the younger generations, those of us bound to college campuses and an inevitable eternity of yuppie coworkers, this is only the beginning. But for Halloween, especially its more risqué embracers, this could be the end. Long gone are the days when snot-nosed teenagers proudly laughed at insensitive costumes. Instead, welcome to a time when a poorly thought-out depiction can easily be caught on camera and earn its designer immediate viral humiliation. Things have changed indeed.
Most cases of offensive attire revolve around racial and ethnic stereotyping. Earlier this year, Walmart faced a public relations disaster for selling a “Little Amigo” costume that imitates Mexican culture with a striped serape shirt, straw hat, and mustache. Then just last week, MTV used an online video to draw attention to similarly tasted get-ups, namely “China Boy” and “Indian Brave.” People aren’t laughing anymore. But why is Halloween being made into the battle ground? Is there something about the quest for free candy that excites people’s innermost vulgarity? To answer this, we must first ask ourselves what motivates a person to slip into one of these outfits.
Even in the most disrespectful scenarios, I imagine that there’s seldom a sincere desire to offend. Most people choose to cloak themselves in corny latex liner because, since they were old enough to know that ghosts are scary, it’s been drilled into their subconscious that on Halloween people pretend to be something that they’re not. Whatever it is they choose to disguise themselves as, they’re wholly recognizing that their representation of it is in fact fictional. How do you succeed in selling inauthenticity? You build on the preconceived notions of your onlookers, trying to convince them what you “are” without ever speaking a word. That is, by definition, the point of a costume.
So when an individual decides to spend the night dressed as a person of Mexican descent, or a Native American, or an Italian, he’s forced to build on his peers internalized understandings. If he wears a sombrero, or a feathered headdress, or an apron with a pizza chef’s hat, he is doing so because it’s how, on a societal level, Americans perceive those cultures. Costumes are meant to convince. If any of these do so successfully, by simplifying remarkably thorough cultures into a single outfit choice, than there’s more than one culprit involved.
Controversial costumes are just an annual excuse to draw attention to a larger, constant issue. Outfits that cross the line only do so by building on images that have been consistently set forth by mainstream media and upheld by real-world experiences. Why might a person think embroidering a dragon onto a robe makes for a Chinese costume? Perhaps it’s because of the identically simplified marketing techniques applied by Chinese restaurants everywhere. If calling a costume that mimics Mexican culture “Little Amigo” is racist, then maybe Mexican restaurants should stop employing similar titles. Maybe, just maybe, if feathers and body paint are a poor portrayal of Native Americans, then we should talk about films like "Dances With Wolves" more often than less-accurate, highly-glorified Disney depictions. The costume wearer isn’t single-handedly sustaining the stereotypes; there’s an institutional problem that transcends the month of October.
Halloween costumes merely point out a problem with the entire nation’s understanding of other ethnicities. As far as the costume wearers, they are only lightheartedly pretending to be something other than themselves. They’re dressing up for one night. Are they really the root of concern? It’s not their fault that the world around them has no idea what is authentic. Instead of attacking the festive spirit of Halloween, we should take a step back and think about the fact that people immediately recognize what these costumes are supposed to be. That might be something worth discussing.