Unless you've had your head under a rock during the past couple of weeks, you've probably seen countless news outlets calling out offensive Halloween costumes, such as these, many of which involve Blackface.
Every October I brace myself for ignorant depictions of minority groups:
- the infamous Indian maiden/Pocahottie
- the mustached Mexican man wearing a sombrero while riding a donkey
- the slant-eyed generic Asian
Just to name a few.
For many, “anything goes" on Halloween, including racist and/or sexist depictions of others. After all, it’s just one night of fun…right?
My colleague, Daniel Rivero, seems to think so. In his recent piece published on our site, he said:
"I like to think that we are getting closer and closer to a world where it is normal to have children looking up to role models who look different from themselves. And in some cases that person's skin tone is an essential part of why we respect them in the first place. Why then, would we tell anyone that they can't play the game, that they can't live out the fantasy for a moment?"
Before I dive in, I must mention that I encouraged Daniel to write and publish this piece so we might have a more meaningful dialogue at Fusion. I am well aware that our audience is made up of people who sit on both sides of this debate and would benefit from considering another perspective. I don't want to criticize him for sharing his point of view because he has every right to have one and express it, just as I have the right to share mine.
While I understand the desire to honor someone, I don't think Halloween is the appropriate occasion. Halloween revelry is about trick-or-treating when you’re young and going to a party when you’re older.
It shouldn't be about appropriation.
Pretending to be another culture (or person from another culture) that’s not your own for fun is exactly that. Appropriation in this case is “the act of setting apart or taking for one's own use.” Therein lies the issue. Wearing a culture or identity as a costume and playing an exoticized stereotype with no regard for reality is a slap in the face - especially when it's in the name of "respect." What it's really about is ownership. And in 2013 marginalized people are no longer up for sale.
It sounds noble to want little boys and girls to have a carefree Halloween and allow them to pretend to be someone they admire for a night. But we don't live in a world that is fair and balanced. Racism is not a figment of one's imagination. It's real. So, allowing your child to appropriate another culture is irresponsible. If your child doesn't understand the harm in wearing blackface, you now have a perfect opportunity to speak to them about racism and white privilege. Tell them that it's important they understand that their intentions won't always translate well with others.
Then, have that conversation with yourself in the mirror.
Even if you only have the best of intentions, your actions can cause harm. Racism isn't always blatant and intentional. One can do or say something racist without intending to. Which is why being open-minded - not defensive - when someone calls you out is so important. (Like right now.)
The other problem with handing out a metaphorical hall pass on Halloween night is because it's not just one night. Many of the recent Blackface Halloween photos have been circulating for weeks now and there will probably be more after Halloween.
But, most importantly, those hurt by cultural appropriation are not those who closely identify with the particular culture. Namely, white people.
As a white person the argument, "But, a white trash costume doesn't offend me," isn't equal. A white person isn't attached to "white" as an ethnicity like a person of color is to theirs. And while the word "trash" doesn't feel so good, being white still leaves you in a place of power in an unequal world. Especially because as a white person, one benefits from white privilege.
One of the benefits of white privilege is believing that Blackface is harmless. It's not feeling sick when you see someone pretending to be from your racial group. White privilege is not feeling like you have to say something. And not feeling guilty if you don't. It's not recognizing the negative impact your intentions have on others and disregarding their objections. You get to pretend that you're exotic for a night, while people of color must deal with the politics of their identity every single day.
If you still don't see the significance of a racially insensitive Halloween costume, that’s fine. Quite frankly, you don’t need to understand. But if respect is what you're truly after, then respect my request and please choose a different costume.