Guide to an anti-racist Halloween
By Tiffany Chan and Jessica Meza-Torres
Ah October—the leaves are changing colors, floating gently to our feet, and as the smell of pumpkin spice and candy corn fills the air, the campus begins to prepare for the holiday we have all been waiting for: Halloween. The one day out of the whole year where we get to dress up and become something we are not.
On this day, it is pretty acceptable to dress up as anything from witches, to kitty cats, to dragons or even bacon. Who isn’t fond of those punny costumes, too, like the Nickelback costume where people wear a plain shirt and glue coins to their back.
But last week, when I walked into the Halloween City store at the Lancaster Mall, I saw many not-so-clever, downright racist costumes being sold and (even worse) being bought by students like us.
For example: A “sexy” Pocahontas costume with a fringed-brown mini dress and a multicolored feathered headdress; a “sexy” geisha costume with a kimono-esque gown; and a thickly-curled moustache with a poncho and a sombrero, to name a few.
Can you imagine people wearing these costumes at parties or out trick-or-treating?
With the autumn season here, not only does the crunch of falling leaves arrive, but so does the dreadful feeling in our stomach, as culturally appropriative costumes take center stage.
What is cultural appropriation you ask? The website Unsettling America: Decolonizing in Theory & Practice states that cultural appropriation is the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic values and behaviors from one culture or subculture by another, usually without proper understanding of said activities and icons.
In trying to “adopt” these practices, the traditions and artifacts lose their original cultural significance and become cheapened, often stereotypical, and are based on perceptions constructed by outsiders.
As much as we want Oct. 31 to be fun, playing dress up with someone else’s culture has larger implications.
“It’s damaging,” junior Latin American studies and Spanish double major Guadalupe Mosqueda said. “These people can be sitting right next to you. It sends the message that that person’s culture does not matter and diminishes it. It turns something that can be really sacred and significant into trendy commodifications. And that’s like erasing a person’s history. By erasing the significance of that cultural piece, you are erasing them as a person.”
We must remind each other and ourselves that the groups we so wrongfully depict on Halloween have historically been subject to oppression in the United States.
White America has institutionally been unwelcoming to minority groups, putting policies into place that very intentionally aim at excluding these groups and denying them rights.
A small sample of these institutional politics include the Indian Removal Act, the Dawes act of 1887, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Operation Wetback and the Johnson-Reed Act; the list goes on and on. To then use these cultural traditions for “fun” is highly problematic. How can Americans practice discrimination, then preach appreciation?
Modern day implications
Systems of oppression and domination are still at play in modern day settings. Stemming from histories of colonialism, imperialism and racism, cultural appropriation becomes a manifestation of these powers.
“Cultural appropriation reduces complex cultures to costumes, co-opting the struggles of marginalized people to effectively trivialize and invisibilize centuries of oppression,” senior and politics major Noor Amr said.
There is privilege in being able to choose pieces of different cultures and label them “trendy,” making them palatable to mainstream pop culture.
The seemingly playful costume choices we make have larger implications that go beyond Oct. 31. Halloween is a mere reflection of larger belief systems, to which we adhere year round.
Many try to make excuses about their appropriative ways by arguing that it is not cultural appropriation they are partaking in, but rather cultural appreciation.
Whether it is a non-Native person with a dreamcatcher tattoo, or a white veganite practicing yoga in their living room, we need to realize that there is a thin line between appreciation and appropriation.
Appreciation does not require the commodifying of cultures. Instead, appreciation means challenging oppressive systems and working to dismantle them.
Cultural appropriation reduces whole Communities of Color into cheap, static caricatures based on the imaginations of white society. These dehumanizing depictions of people of Color create stereotypical boxes that limit the possibilities of who a person can be.
So what personal actions can we take to have a less racist Halloween? If you find yourself telling a person of Color not to be so sensitive, or perhaps defending your Frida Kahlo costume, stop and reevaluate.
1. The first step is always self-reflection. Take some time to analyze your costume critically: “Does my costume exploit another culture?,” “How is this reflective of my privilege?” and “Why I am wearing this on Halloween when others are condemned for wearing this on a daily basis?” are all good starting points.
2. After a deep thinking session with yourself, help out a friend. Encourage them to question their own positionality and privilege.
3. But remember not to turn this into a debate. Racism is not a debatable question, it is a fact.
4. Instead, try building a relationship with your friends in which you hold each other accountable. Remind each other that calling one another out comes from a place of empathy and care, not out of spite. Setting up this kind of conversation can be a productive way to analyze white or white passing privilege, while simultaneously establishing a long-term friendship.
This Halloween, and forever more, remember that fun is achievable without harming and exploiting Communities of Color. Dump the face paint, burn your store-bought costume and, for god’s sake, do not wear a sombrero. We need to become critical lovers of Halloween, instead of being complicit with greater systems of oppression.