Halloween’s coming, and that means it’s time for some good old fashioned American racism. Basically, white people think it’s okay to don the costumes or likenesses of non-white people. Lest I be accused of reverse racism, I’ll explain.
- White people have historically held social and political power. This often included power over the very bodies of non-whites. White people were the traditional oppressors, who enjoyed luxuries and privileges, like the right to fair housing, simply by virtue of their skin color.
- This is bad.
- Now white people want to take pieces of non-white culture for funsies. This is called “cultural appropriation”. This co-oped culture is often distorted and divorced from the real meaning to the people to whom it belongs.
- This culture is often also sexualized. This harkens back to the time when whites did control the bodies of non-whites – think slave rape – and can be triggering. It also portrays a sense that the non-white only exists for the pleasure of the white.
None of these things stops Halloween Express from hawking supremely offensive costumes.
So to help you decide if your costume is culturally appropriation, I’ve made a handy guide.
- If your costume involves painting your face darker, step it on back. This should not need explanation.
- Geishas are not okay. While Americans never historically oppressed Japan, except for that whole atom bomb thing, that doesn’t stop us from stealing their culture and distorting it. Geishas are highly trained professionals with a long history and rich traditions. This is not captured in your off-the-rack geisha garb. Americans, and your costume, portray geishas as exotic, sexually available just-this-side-of prostitutes. Basically, they’re whores in kimonos. You are not Japanese. You are not a geisha. Find another costume.
- Don’t touch Native American costumes. If you’re contemplating this, you’re calling them Indians, associating them with teepees and arrows and feathers, and possibly dressing as a slutty Pocahontas. Here’s the thing about Native Americans: there are a lot of tribes, and each tribe has its different traditions. When you dress up as a generic Native American/First Nations people, you lump all of them into one image. That’s racist. Whites also have no right to co-op NA/FN culture, considering we killed them, raped them, fought them, and finally herded them onto reservations. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of broken treaties and stolen lands. When you dress as a slutty Native American, you’re ignoring all the rapes that happened down the centuries. And don’t defend yourself by claiming you’re Pocahontas – she was 12.
- You are not a sugar skull. Sugar skulls are intimately tied not to Halloween, but to a very different holiday, Dia de los Muertes, or Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead celebrates deceased ancestors, who are believed to walk the earth that day. They are welcomed and feted with marigolds and feasts at their graves. Sugar skulls aren’t scary. And when you dress as one, you co-op the Mexican holiday and distort its meaning from a celebration to a spookfest. We expend plenty of energy abusing our Mexican-American population. We don’t need to take their holiday.
- You are not a Mexican. Anyway, Mexicans don’t wear ponchos and sombreros every day. You’re taking an entire (oppressed) culture and reducing it to a grotesque caricature. We don’t lump whole groups of people together, especially to make fun of them.
- If your costume involves the words “thug” or “gangster”, it’s inappropriate. Black Americans are still fighting for full civil rights in this country. “Thug” and “gangster” caricaturize elements of black culture and make them Blacks into laughable, dangerous stereotypes. These costumes contribute to the dehumanization of black men in America. Skip it.
- It’s not race-based, but it’s important anyway: Don’t dress as a hobo. Rich people have always controlled the poor. Poverty is not a glamourous train ride, but grinding misery. When you dress like a “hobo”, you’re caricaturizing the homeless that populate our cities and towns. You’re also using a term that went out in the 1930s to describe people walking around today, which is somewhat offensive.
You may think this is all bullshit. Halloween is for caricature, you argue, and that’s why the pregnant nun costume is funny (as a Catholic, by the way, it’s not). But these examples go beyond caricature and into the historical power struggles between white and brown, between power and powerless. They actually offend people. Be the bigger person – and even if you think this is overly PC, take heed. Kindness can help heal the fissures these costumes expose. Be that kind person. And keep off the blackface unless you want to hit the 6 o’clock news.
(1) “Sexy Indian”, Halloween Express