I have a love-hate relationship with Halloween.
Part of the holiday is great: there’s awesome candy, fun parties to go to, there are adorable children in superhero costumes getting way too excited. The hate part comes when I see various depictions of cultural appropriation, race stereotyping, and general offensiveness presented in people’s costumes.
Allow me to describe something called “casual racism.” Casual racism is something said or done that is racist, but often the perpetrator is ignorant and does not know that what they have done is wrong. Likewise, this person might be trying to be “funny” or “ironic,” and thinks it is okay. It happens all the time, like when a white person calls something that is run down “ghetto,” calling a person of colour “exotic,” flashing gang signs, or making jokes about your Chinese friend being really good at math.
Although everyone would like to think that we live in a progressive society, and that racists are people who live in the southern United States, which doesn’t affect us. That just is not true.
White people benefit from white privilege. White privilege is largely invisible and people often don’t understand that they benefit from it. Being white means I am more likely to be considered for a job, less likely to get arrested, I am never asked to speak on behalf of my racial group, my shape or body odour will not be attributed to my race, the list really does go on and on. White privilege exists, and if you are white you benefit from it, period.
Back to Halloween costumes. Appropriating a culture and using it as a costume is not okay. This means you cannot dress up as a Native American and wear a headdress, or paint a sugar skull on your face, or be a geisha, or a terrorist or anything else that stereotypes or appropriates other people’s culture into a costume. You are wearing someone else’s culture, and it is offensive.
When you wear a headdress, for example, you are ignoring and invalidating the hundreds of years of oppression and suffering of Native People, and you do not understand the religious significance because you do not participate in that culture. Yes, you can put on a bindi, but you cannot put on the hundreds of years of oppression that Indian people have suffered at the hands of white people. You are not just “appreciating their culture” when you dress up as a geisha. You are not being unique, original or different. Your intent does not change the fact that what you are doing is racist, and these things are not yours to wear.
If you still aren’t convinced, think, “If I wore this stereotype costume out, and someone who be- longed to the culture I am stereotyping saw me, would I be embarrassed, or would I feel the need to defend myself?” If the answer is yes, don’t do it.
Saying, “Well, I didn’t know,” doesn’t fly, either. It’s important that everyone educate themselves on the oppression of other people. Not being racist is an active addressing and unlearning of the various prejudices and assumptions that we all carry.
What you are doing is not a joke, you are not ironic or funny, and you are not appreciating culture by appropriating it. There are plenty of awesome Halloween costumes out there and none of them involve stereotyping.
So this year when you think of your costume, do yourself a favour and also think about what your costume might represent. Maybe then everyone can stuff their face with candy in peace.