Zombies, vampires and Moana… Oh my!
Halloween—or as I like to think of it, the (second) most wonderful time of the year—is upon us. I usually spend all of October convincing my friends to watch scary movies and carve pumpkins with me to get into the spooky holiday spirit. After all, in the words of “The Office” character Michael Scott, “Halloween is a day where we honor monsters and not be mad at each other.” Despite this wisdom, however, people have been getting pretty heated over whether or not it’s taboo to use traditional or stereotypical garb from a culture that’s not your own as a costume.
This year, the nightmare started on a dark and stormy night (not really) at Ohio State University when a local student-run magazine handed out charts on campus (see flowchart below). The flowchart asked people about their Halloween costumes and tried to steer them away from potentially racist choices. If the costume is a traditional outfit from another culture, if it humanizes inhumane people (think Nazis), or if you want to honor a deceased celebrity of color (think Prince) and you’re white, then according to the chart, it’s a no-go.
Yikes. To be honest, I was tracking with this flowchart until it came to the last part. First, I hope it’s obvious to everyone that it’s never okay to trivialize things that are sacred to other people, even if you don’t agree with it. That’s just common human decency and respect. So Native American chief headdresses and Dia de Los Muertos sugar skulls are off-limits unless it is a part of your culture. That, though, is the beef I have with the last part of the chart: The restrictions are apparently only for white people. It implies that any person of color can dress up as anything from another culture, and it’d be fine. If the main concern is cultural appropriation, then following that logic, it would only makes sense to restrict those outfits from everyone outside of the culture, regardless of skin color.
That being said, I think if it’s done respectfully, you could use this as a great opportunity to learn more about a different culture. In a viral article from raceconscious.org, Sachi Feris wrote about how her 5-year-old daughter wanted to be Moana for Halloween next year. Worried that dressing up her white daughter as a Polynesian character would be appropriation, Feris told her, “Elsa is an imaginary or made-up character. Moana is based on real history and a real group of people…if we are going to dress up as a real person, we have to make sure we are doing it in a way that is respectful. Otherwise, it is like we are making fun of someone else’s culture.”
A lot of people have responded to the racist costume discussion by saying, “Who cares? It’s Halloween!” They argue that the nuances of cultural appropriation are too difficult to explain to the average person, let alone kids, so why bother? Well, I think Feris’ explanation to her daughter was pretty clear and simple. And it’s never too early to start teaching your kids how to be thoughtful and considerate.
So if your costume is based on generalized stereotype of a culture, then try again. But if you ask me, I think it’s all right to dress up as a specific famous person or character of color even if you’re not the same race—as long as you don’t try to alter your skin color, of course. In a recent online article for GQ, Caity Weaver wrote that “when it comes to costumes, the more specific your outfit is, the funnier it will be. Dressing up as “a black man” is a bad idea. Dressing up as “Barack Obama” is a mediocre idea. Dressing up as “Casual, Retired Obama” is a funny idea—and a great opportunity to eat frozen treats while wearing comfy clothes.”
And anyway, there are plenty of silly, spooky or sexy costumes that capture the true spirit of Halloween. Just throw on some vampire teeth and fake blood and you’ll be fine. After all, to once again echo Michael Scott, the real reason for the season is not to divide us, but to bring us together in some good old-fashioned Halloween terror.