I always get excited when October arrives.
Cooler temperatures, the turning of the leaves, football season, and pumpkin-flavored everything make October one of my favorite months. Most of all, I get excited for my favorite holiday: Halloween.
However, Halloween presents some predicaments for me whenever I go to a party or out to a bar. First, when someone dresses up in a costume that is stereotypical and racist. Last year, a group of students from Ohio University, Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS), launched a very successful poster campaign with the slogan: “We’re a culture, not a costume.” It shows students of color holding up a poster with a racist costume stereotypically depicting the respective race of each student. The contrast between the students and the caricatures on the posters really makes the point all the more powerful. It generated a lot of buzz, and brought this critical discussion to the fore.
Whether it’s dressing up as Native Americans, Geishas, Arabian princesses, stereotypical Mexicans wearing sombreros, or as “ghetto,” it’s surprising that in 2012 these costumes are still commonplace. What’s even more surprising is the resistance, typically from white people, that I encounter when I explain why these costumes are problematic. Accusations of people being “too sensitive” or “humorless” typically arise during these conversations. It particularly irritates me that those who protest this critique are, of course, not represented by these costumes. Therefore, you think they might reflect and say: “My culture or race is not being represented by these costumes, so I’m going to take a step back, and realize why other people find this offensive.”
In other words, I guess it’s easy to say that everyone is being “too sensitive” if it’s not about you. But considering that these costumes are not about white people, the impassioned defense of one’s right to wear these costumes is very telling about white privilege. In a world where racism is still very much a reality, these costumes reinforce persons of color being both misrepresented and situated as others. White people wearing these costumes means something in a world where whiteness is normalized, and strongly echoes a mainstream culture centered on white supremacy. Essentially, a white person saying they have a “right” to wear these costumes reflects an attitude that their right to be racist and appropriate a culture supersedes the right of a person of color to protest that action, which intimately injures them and perpetuates their marginalization. The misconception that we live in a post-racial society where this is somehow “all in good fun” is very dangerous.
Furthermore, does anyone believe that the only way you can be funny on Halloween is to dress up as a racist caricature? If retailers finally stopped selling these costumes, would Halloween suddenly no longer be fun for white people? Given the passion with which some white people defend the wearing of these costumes, it seems as though they truly feel this is the case. Someone’s perception of something as “funny” obviously does not justify racism. Not to mention, that although I generally see white people wearing these costumes, it doesn’t make it okay if a person of color also appropriates another culture. It’s just given the reality of white supremacy and privilege past and present, it’s particularly egregious when white people participate in this appropriation. Although I consider these costumes to be overtly racist, those who do not view it that way need to understand that racism operates at various levels in society; all of which need to be confronted. It’s not confined solely to Halloween costumes either, as the fashion industry habitually comes under fire for cultural appropriation and racism. Two recent examples are Dolce & Gabbana modeling racist earrings and Victoria’s Secret launching a racist Geisha-themed lingerie line.
The second problem I typically encounter on Halloween is the slut-shaming of women who wear sexy costumes. Yes, the proliferation of sexy costumes is problematic in its own way, but I think it’s much worse to judge the women who choose to wear these outfits. (I’m referring to adult women here, teens and girls wearing these costumes are another issue entirely.) I am directing this more so toward female readers. Women are socialized to look down on other women who are perceived as attractive. The mainstream media perpetuates an intense pressure to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty, so if someone has come close to achieving those standards, it can incite understandable jealousy. However, women need to realize that in this patriarchal world, it doesn’t serve us well to cut each other down.
If you choose not to participate in the trend of wearing risqué costumes, more power to you. However, I think it’s dangerous to develop a superior attitude toward other women who want to show some skin. In other words, do your thing, but respect other women who feel confident about their bodies. I recall on a Halloween a few years ago when a woman screamed “sluts!” out a car window as she drove past a group of scantily clad women. For the guys who witnessed that incident, it may have reinforced the acceptability of using those terms. If other women wearing those types of costumes really bothers you, it may be time to examine exactly why it gets on your nerves. Imagine if women complimented each other when they saw each other out in skimpy costumes, and defended each other against sexist, slut-shaming remarks? It would certainly make my Halloween a lot better if women viewed each other in solidarity.
So although I enjoy Halloween every year, I know I will undoubtedly have to confront these particular issues. The best I can hope for is that these discussions will eventually have an impact.