On Reframing the Debate Around Racist Halloween Costumes

Originally published at Opine Season

Every year in recent memory, October is when progressive writers, bloggers and activists try to convince people that dressing up like a stereotype of someone else’s culture for Halloween is maybe not such a great idea.

There is now an online treasure trove of writing on the subject, and each autumn adds a few more thoughts to chew on, even if the overall message remains the same. Here are a few examples, including this one from my own blog:

Here’s the thing: I know “you weren’t trying to be racist.” I know that “I’m not getting what you were going for.” I know you think your costume is just “riffing on stereotypes” or only represents “one specific character, not an entire race.” But dressing up as a caricature of someone else’s culture is still a terrible, uncreative costume idea and you should have thought of something better.

Thea Lim at Racialicious breaks down the bigger issue:

The reason why “ethnic costumes” are so problematic is because they posit a cultural identity as a costume – they compress the complexity and intricacy of an entire culture into dress-up; into something that anyone (or really, usually someone with class and race privilege) has the right to use for the most superficial purposes.

Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations talks about how this isn’t just politics or PC-policing; it’s about human beings. There is an emotional cost:

Last night I sat with a group of Native undergraduates to discuss their thoughts and ideas about the costume issue, and hearing the comments they face on a daily basis broke my heart. They take the time each year to send out an email called “We are not a costume” to the undergraduate student body–an email that has become known as the “whiny newsletter” to their entitled classmates. They take the time to educate and put themselves out there, only to be shot down by those that refuse to think critically about their choices.Your choices are adversely affecting their college experiences, and that’s hard for me to take without a fight.

Students at Ohio University came up with a powerful poster campaign fighting back, as Jorge Rivas writes in this piece for Colorlines:

“This is happening across the country. It’s not just here in Athens, Ohio,” says Williams, who is the president of a student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS). The group, made up of 10 students, has created an educational campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” that juxtaposes images like the one Williams saw last year with an actual African-American student. It adds a simple statement: “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

And time and time again, there are the same responses:

It’s not a big deal. People are just having fun. Get over yourself.

No matter how many times I hear these responses, I’m baffled. I get that most people don’t have access to high-quality multicultural education or in-depth conversations about oppression. I get that most people, especially people coming from privilege, aren’t constantly engaged with these issues. But this isn’t exactly social justice rocket science.

We’re not talking about reparations or the need for an armed rebellion to overthrow white supremacy here. This is just about having the common decency to not treat someone else’s culture like a prop, to choose one of the millions of other Halloween costume ideas out there rather that one of the few dozen racist ones.

It is mind-boggling to me how this debate is always framed as “why shouldn’t I be allowed to dress up like a stereotype?” as opposed to “why would you want to dress up like a stereotype?” But that’s how power works. Some people get the benefit of the doubt, some don’t.

The burden shouldn’t be on people of color to “prove” that something is offensive; the burden should be on the (overwhelmingly, but not exclusively) white kids who consciously choose to dress as stereotypes to explain their awful choices.

Of course, they will. They will rationalize and whine; they will get defensive and try to derail the conversation. But the pressure to think critically and cultivate empathy will be on them.

And some will get it. Some may only need a little push. I encourage people to re-post any of the articles linked to above; continue this conversation in whatever spaces you have access to. I hate that we have to start with facepalm-inducing stuff like “blackface makeup = bad,” but the conversation around racist Halloween costumes has the potential to be a gateway for so much more. This is never just about Halloween; it’s about whose stories and histories are valued in our society. It’s about how stereotypes dehumanize entire communities and lead to policies and practices that hurt people. It’s about making the connections between the so-called “little things” (like Halloween costumes, but also like Miss Saigon at the Ordway, the name of the football team based in our nation’s capital, and much more) and the larger reality of oppression.

Finally, for the inevitable comments that accompany any piece like this, a few preemptive responses:

If it’s “not that big of a deal,” then it should be super easy for you to just choose a different costume.

If the only way you can “just have some fun” on Halloween is to choose a costume that you know offends people, that is kind of sad.

And if you’re angry that someone has the audacity to point out that your costume is offensive, I guess all I have to say is this:

Get over yourself.