Update: Now that it's socially acceptable (i.e. not seen as overly eager) to plan your Halloween costume, let this piece serve as a reminder of what constitutes a good idea — and a very much not okay one.
This story was originally published on 19th October 2015.
Halloween is hands-down my favourite holiday. Not only do I have a socially sanctioned excuse to house an entire bag of fun-sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in one sitting, I’ve always enjoyed putting together elaborate and creative costumes (mostly variations on some sort of princess).
However, things got a little complicated a few years ago when I switched on NPR in the car and heard someone talking about how offensive it is when a white girl (like me) puts on moccasins, sticks a feather in her hair, and calls herself a sexy Indian for Halloween. The argument at its most basic goes like this: Since white people have a long history of systematically exterminating and driving Native Americans off their own land, it’s pretty shitty to dress up as an inaccurate, “sexy” stereotype of a Native American and get wasted.
So I crossed Native American Princess off my list of potential cute costumes. But as the discussion around cultural appropriation has intensified, and Halloween approaches again, I’ve looked back on my past Halloween costumes with a critical eye and realised at least of couple were maybe (definitely) a bit tasteless.
Three years ago, when it snowed on Halloween in New York, I pulled on a pair of big, furry Muk Luk boots, accessorised with every other fur accessory I could find, and called myself an Eskimo. Never mind that “Eskimo” itself is an offensive term (I was going for Inuit, I guess). Two years ago, I wrapped a gold-embroidered sari I stole from my mum’s closet over gold lamé leggings and a top from American apparel, bought some jewellery from an Indian store in Midtown, and went as far as to have an Indian henna tattoo artist paint gold art on my hands. I felt beautiful, but who did I piss off as I raved all weekend with a bindi on my forehead?
I called up several experts on cultural appropriation and got their take. “Why do people use Halloween as a time to be offensive?” asks Jamia Wilson, the executive director of Women, Action and the Media.
It comes down to Halloween being a goofy, silly holiday where people are trying to be clever and funny with their costumes. “At Halloween, you participate in the carnivalesque,” says Anna Akbari, PhD, a sociologist and founder of Sociology of Style. “Everyday life gets turned upside down and inside out, hierarchies dissolve, the sacred becomes profane. Hence why so many women dress in an overtly sexual manner, because they can reclaim it in a way that becomes acceptable on Halloween.”
“Halloween as a holiday has a history of being focused on inversion of power,” says professor Susan Scafidi of Fordham University. She is the author of Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. “It’s about turning the daily world on its head.” People dress up as celebrities, cops, politicians, and other powerful figures, and it’s funny! But when you dress up as a culture that you are currently oppressing, or have subjugated in the past, you’re not inverting anything, you’re just kicking them when they are down — or, as Scafidi says, “reinforcing current power structures in an offensive way.”
“We need to treat people with the dignity that they deserve, the way we want to be treated. If it’s something that [you] have the privilege to wear safely, where others would be persecuted if they wore it, do not wear it,” Wilson says.
Put another way, minorities have to put up with so much real BS every day of their lives — discrimination, hostility, structural violence and exploitation — then they go out on Halloween and everywhere they turn are people making fun of them and their family and friends using erroneous stereotypes. “You can be whoever you want for a day, but with what ramifications?” says Dr. Akbari. “Who suffers at the hand of your public display of dress-up?” Can you imagine being Mexican, hearing Donald Trump call all Mexicans rapists, and then seeing guys partying in sombreros on Halloween? Or being a Muslim and unable to get on a plane without being pulled out of the security line, and seeing someone dressed up as a terrorist? And then, you can’t even say anything without being dismissed as overly sensitive.
“The pushback is ‘People can’t take a joke’ or ‘You’re looking too hard for [offence],’” says Akil Houston, associate professor of cultural and media studies at Ohio University. Students there did a great campaign a couple years back called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.” But he’s also seen some egregious costumes, including a Klansman with a noose around a student’s neck, and white male students in blackface as Michael Jordan and Lil’ Wayne.
“You should know when you go past the limit,” he says. “But there are people in society who don’t know that limit. If we really begin to examine the links between funny and the subconscious thoughts of others, there might be a lot more there than just a joke,” he points out.
But Dr. Akbari cautions against being too strident. “Erring on the side of being PC always works in your favor,” she says. “But anyone who tells you that there is a clear line, they’re lying. It doesn’t exist. Halloween in many ways is about pushing the envelope. Every costume can offend in the right context. That doesn’t mean just go for it, because you’re going to offend everyone. I don’t think anyone should go in blackface; I don’t encourage a Caitlyn Jenner costume.”
Okay, so don’t be scared to be creative, but be thoughtful. Got it. Here are some more specific guidelines I found:
Don’t wear blackface.
Don’t do it. What if — no. What about if — no. Never. Wear. Blackface. Not if you are dressing up as a Black celebrity, or even as Rachel Dolezal, the woman who literally wore blackface in real life. Leave that one alone. It’s like putting a sign on your chest that says, “I’m racist and proud of it!”
I asked professors Akil and Scafidi about dressing up as a Black celebrity without blackface, and they were both cautiously okay with it — as long as you aren’t playing on hurtful stereotypes. Just show your creativity. Wear a bodysuit, stockings, heels and a crown and be Queen Bey. Get your partner in partying to wear a tux and, bam, most powerful couple in Brooklyn. If you want to be Oprah, put on a brightly coloured, monochromatic outfit and run around the party going, “And you get candy, and you get candy, and you get candy! EVERYBODY GETS CANDY!” See? No blackface or stereotypes needed.
Don’t wear a Native American headdress. Or any Native American costume.
“Costumes are meant to be fantasy or fun or scary. Cultures or people are not costumes,” says Jessica Metcalfe, PhD, who writes about Native American art, fashion and design, and runs Beyond Buckskin, an online store that sells wearable Native American art. “There is the PocaHottie, the sexy native woman costume, the chief, or the savage. These costumes are playing off stereotypes of people, and we know stereotypes have negative impacts on us on a daily basis.” Adrienne Keene, EdD, writes elegantly on this topic on her blog, Native Appropriations. “I just can’t understand how, after hearing first-hand that your choice is hurtful to another human being, you’re able to continue to celebrate with your braids and plastic tomahawk,” she says.
Oh, and on the topic of headdresses: They’re actually a sacred thing, built from individual eagle feathers that are earned over time. Through her hard work and advocacy, Dr. Metcalfe has earned a total of two. “When you are wearing a headdress, you are showing off all the amazing things that you’ve done. The feathers of many people can come together to create the headdress of one leader. It’s like a form of voting. And to see somebody who hasn’t earned the right, wearing it around alcohol in a party environment; it’s completely disrespectful.” Just like you don’t get to wear a medal of honour by being born American, you don’t get to wear a headdress on Halloween if you have Cherokee in you. Simple as that.
Don’t sexualize minorities.
“The sexualization of women from foreign cultures is part of a different kind of oppression,” professor Scafidi says. “Particularly the treatment of women who are part of the ‘other’ as sexually available to men of the majority culture. Which is why when people sometimes say, 'I don’t care if someone dresses up like my culture,’ that’s usually coming from a straight male.”
To wit: You might have a fun time being dressed up as a sexy Geisha, but you can take off the costume and continue living undisturbed. Meanwhile, actual Japanese women (well, Asian women in general) are subjected to people fetishizing their looks without any easy way to make it stop. Same goes for a "sexy Gypsy" costume: harassment of the Roma in Europe is well documented and ongoing.
It’s never an homage at Halloween.
When I asked Scafidi about my Indian costume, she said it wasn’t the best idea. “You probably looked beautiful, and had it been any other day but Halloween it might have been a lovely homage.”
Unfortunately, no matter how assiduously I researched typical Indian makeup and how many claims I made to how beautiful I think Indian culture is, I was still surrounded by all version of sexy and silly costumes, dancing all night in a club. As an aside: An Indian-American woman did rush up to tell me how much she loved my costume, but one person from a culture telling you they love it doesn’t mean they speak for everyone, as Akilah Hughes points out in this excellent video on the topic of costume parties.
When in doubt, go as something mythical, from an extinct culture, or from a dominant culture.
So you want to dress as some sort of person, as opposed to an animal or a play on words. “If it’s something that is completely fantastical and doesn’t exist in real life, that is a safer zone,” Dr. Akbari says. Zombies, Vikings, or fairies aren’t going to hurt anybody’s feelings, and you aren’t going to run into a pirate wench that feels disenfranchised. “By and large, those in power in majority cultures and extinct cultures are fair game,” Scafidi says. So put on your tennis whites and have a good time. Anyone offended by your WASP costume can comfort themselves with a gin and tonic. They'll be fine.
If you just have to do it, be ready to have a conversation.
Hey it’s America. Free speech and all that, but if someone wants to explain to you why your Native American headdress isn’t cool, don’t just walk away. You brought this on yourself. “If you’re going to come out in public like that, you need to be prepared to speak to that,” Akil says. “It’s difficult, because the atmosphere doesn’t lend itself to critical conversation. But when I see the more offensive costumes, I talk to them about it.”
“I’ve been at parties where I’ve been like, ‘I think that is offensive, and I don’t think it’s funny,’" Wilson says. “There has to be an acknowledgment of privilege of power. I would want [people in costume] to be prepared to have that conversation.”
Be an Advocate (carefully).
Now that you know, you might feel the need to righteously tell every person you see in an offensive costume all about it. Just be gentle about it. “I will not be rushing through Greenwich Village at Halloween shaking my finger at people,” Scafidi says. “Most of this is not done with the intent to offend. It comes from a lack of knowledge and carelessness. This awareness is relatively recent.”
Dr. Metcalf doesn’t say anything to people, because it’s too personal and exhausting for her. “I don’t want to approach that person because I just don’t have the energy. It does require a lot of patience, and also strength to approach somebody,” she says. But she would appreciate you being an ally for her ahead of and during Halloween. “The more allies we have the better,” she says.
Just be mindful of the mindset that people are in, which is to say, drunk and rowdy. “When someone has had a few drinks, it’s probably not the time to bring up the issue with them,” Scafidi says.