What will you be for Halloween this year? A ghost? Boo! A witch? Don’t forget your hat. Superman? Nice tights. A cartoony headdress-wearing Indian? Hold up!
One of these things is not like the others. When you dress up as another cultural or ethnic group, your costume isn’t spooky or fun, it’s offensive.
Here are some questions you might be asking, and here are my answers.
Why is it offensive? In the plainest terms, distilling a culture into a costume diminishes that culture and its people. It ignores the many differences and individual traits that make people human and replaces them with stereotypes.
What if I admire a culture and don’t mean any harm? Form line is among my favorite art forms and I regularly wear a silver carved bracelet made by a Tlingit artist, but we have to know when to draw the line. Tlingit regalia is not a costume. Despite the painted face, Geisha isn’t a costume. And take that bindi off your forehead, because traditional Indian attire is not a costume either.
It’s not like it’s blackface, right? Just because you haven’t rubbed shoe polish on your face doesn’t mean you aren’t offensively making a caricature of a culture by dressing up and exhibiting stereotypical actions or behaviors.
Who are you to talk? Great question. I’m white and grew up middle class, who am I to talk? I attended the infamous brunch that caused a lot of debate earlier this year and I had to do a lot of soul searching after it was pointed out that a culture is not a theme. I had to ask questions about where the line is drawn between admiration and appropriation, between wearing a piece of jewelry and wearing a costume, between making the easy choice and making the right choice. I’m talking because I’ve been there. I lost the respect of people I respected and cared about. I thought long and hard, and not without some tears, about who I was and who I wanted to be. I want to be an ally. I want to think about challenging issues of race, culture and white privilege. I want to stand up for equality and sometimes that means ruining people’s planned Halloween costumes.
If I ruined your Halloween costume this year, you’re welcome. Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of last-minute costume ideas out there. The possibilities are endless, really; before you decide, just ask yourself if your costume is going to scare or offend. Oh, and I’ve got dibs on being a sea monster.