Halloween

I started to write this long, thoughtful post about Halloween costumes.  You know, about respecting other cultures and not using other people as costumes and about cultural appropriation and co-optation.  But I realized that these are words that lack meaning and/or are interpreted in a manner that is acceptable to the listener.

What I really want to say is If you have any hesitation about your Halloween costume, just don’t do it.

Here’s the brief summary of my reasoning for the majority of white people:  You just don’t have the experience or the understanding to be able to critically examine what it means to wear a costume using an ethnicity or traditional dress or famous people of another race or laden with stereotypes like the geisha.

In other words, you just don’t get it.

People tend to trot out the same tired responses during discussions of “appropriate” Halloween costumes.  And ultimately, people in non-affected groups* typically reach the same conclusion:  Hey!  There’s nothing wrong with it!  It’s just in good fun! These same people tend to live in areas that are mostly homogenous, so their opinions are reinforced by others.  But just for good measure, they toss in the opinion of some black or Asian person they know.

(*I should note that yes, of course, people in affected groups sometimes come to the same conclusion.  But a discussion of internalized racism is beyond the scope of this post.)

I’ve written about the all in good fun defense previously.

And then we have the concept of “rights.” Because nobody has rights like white people have rights.  It’s a free country!  We have the right to free speech!

I used to reply, “Yes, you have the right to be an asshole.”  But now I don’t think that’s true.  I don’t think the constitution embodies anybody with the right to disregard the feelings of others or to be offensive.  Because here the issue is not about free discourse without government interference.  The issue is about power and privilege.

Saying that a Halloween costume is about “rights” elevates the importance of the position of the person being an asshole.  Because of course “rights” are more important than anything else.  But this is contradictory to another oft-heard defense, which is It’s no big deal!

If you want to find out what a big deal it is,  try banning some of these costumes.  Because then you find out it’s all about “rights” again.

I’ve used this strategy when other people have told me something racist was “not a big deal.”  I respond, “So if it’s not a big deal, then we’re not going to do it, right?”  Suddenly it does become a big deal.

The message is that it’s not a big deal for people in the majority to dismiss the concerns of people in the minority.  It is a big deal for people in the majority to give up their privilege.  If Halloween costumes truly weren’t a big deal, they wouldn’t even need to be discussed.  Sensible people would simply shrug their shoulders and decide to dress as something else.

That goes back to the power and privilege issue.

Another issue raised is about “respectfulness.”  The argument goes like this:  As long as it’s respectful, I can’t see the harm in it.

Hello!  This is Halloween. Halloween is not a holiday that is typically given to being respectful.  Remember?  It’s all about fun.  Which is often racist fun.

The problem with “respect” is that I feel that it is inherently disrespectful to use another culture or people’s clothing, dress, attire, whatever as a Halloween costume.  We are not the Incredible Hulk.  We are not cartoon characters.  We are not available for your amusement.

And this gets back to the you just don’t get it part of my argument. When the YMCA ended its “Indian Guides and Princesses” program, CEO Ken Gladish wrote the following:

In the winter 2000-2001, a task force of YMCA CEOs and Indian Guide volunteers from around the country judged that in the 21st Century, we could not consider it respectful to appropriate the guise, spiritual traditions and rituals of another people.

We understand that participants believe they were always respectful.

Our experience has taught us that it is not always possible to tell how the most earnest attempts at respect may be perceived by another culture.

Although YMCA of the USA issued frequent reminders over the years, we continued to hear accounts of YMCAs falling back into misconceptions and Hollywood stereotyping of Native Americans.

But the point is that to appropriate another people’s names, guise and rituals is not in keeping with the mission, values and diversity initiatives of this 150-year-old organization devoted to “caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.”

Gladish was entirely too nice when he wrote that “participants believe they were always respectful.” I think that sometimes people know deep down that maybe they aren’t so respectful, because otherwise the defenses wouldn’t come flooding out. But his point is important: Your viewpoint is not the same as my viewpoint.

As long as it’s respectful, I can’t see the harm in it. Here’s the response to the second part of this defense. It is entirely possible that you can’t see the harm in it. In fact, my life as a person of color has taught me that white people typically don’t see the harm in racism. In fact, they often can’t even recognize racism for what it is.

And part of what is so irritating and enraging about white people opining about their rights or about their intent to be respectful or about the good fun or the lack of harm is the fact that they are coming from a thoroughly uninformed viewpoint.  When I am ruler of the universe, people will have to preface such statements.  Here are some suggestions:

As a white person who is not subjected to racism on a daily basis … I feel this is no big deal.

As a white person who has not thought about cultural appropriation … I don’t see the harm in this.

As a white person who purposely chose to remain ignorant and to defend my own position when somebody raised an issue of cultural sensitivity … I think you’re wrong about how you feel.

White parents with children of color, take special note of that last one.  Because undoubtedly you’ve been communicating how your child should feel for a long time, both consciously and unconsciously.  Remember this lesson:  The feelings of people who look like your child are not important and therefore your child’s feelings are unimportant as well.

My racismese translator for all of the above says, I’m a white person, and I just don’t get it.  Nor do I want to.

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10 thoughts on “Halloween

  1. Would you extend the YMCA’s argument to the Boy Scouts as well? As my son has gotten older and I’ve seen the ceremonies with adult eyes, I’m definitely feeling uncomfortable for all the reasons you state above.

  2. Here’s the brief summary of my reasoning for the majority of white people: You just don’t have the experience or the understanding to be able to critically examine what it means to wear a costume using an ethnicity or traditional dress or famous people of another race or laden with stereotypes like the geisha.

    In other words, you just don’t get it.

    Maybe I’m cynical, but I think white people can still rationalize their way out of that:

    “Only rural and uneducated white people don’t have the experience and understanding to critically examine race and ethnicity. I have experience because I went to Japan and I have Japanese friends. I have the understanding and critical thinking skills, because I went to university, I studied Japanese culture, and I’m not an idiot like those other white people. Thus, I can wear the geisha costume; they’re not talking about me.”

  3. Restructure!: true. :(

    As a white person who is not subjected to racism on a daily basis … I feel this is no big deal.

    As a white person who has not thought about cultural appropriation … I don’t see the harm in this.

    As a white person who purposely chose to remain ignorant and to defend my own position when somebody raised an issue of cultural sensitivity … I think you’re wrong about how you feel.

    Oh man, that’s perfect.

  4. My son’s high school had “Fr0ntier Day” during homecoming week. I won’t even go into the “costumes” and the posters. Long story short, a group of us addressed it w/ the school. At least they didn’t make excuses or try to deny – the principal stepped up, took responsibility and asked for help in addressing it.

    But damn, yes, everyone was so surprised, why they’d nver even thought about it being offensive – seriously. We found out later that a teacher had gotten wind prior, complained, but it was “too late to cancel” so they put out an announcement to “please be respectful and sensitive”. WTF? If you have to make that announcement … and how the hell are the white kids even supposed to KNOW what’s “respectful and sensitive” anyway if you haven’t even educated them about anyone else’s culture? Anyway.

    And this happened in a district where we actually do have a multi-cultural coordinator, and he is a Native man. He said seeing white girls dressed up in “buckskin halloween costumes” with short skirts and braids made him sick. How the Native students must’ve felt that day. Even though the school is willing to address it, you can’t undo that.

  5. More cowbell, thanks for sharing. I’d love to read a longer blog post about this (hint, hint).

    “Too late to cancel,” as translated by the racismese dictionary, means “Would be embarrassing to admit” or maybe “we don’t really feel like doing it.” Because if it’s too late, oh well, nothing can be done, so sorry.

  6. You have some good points. Folks for generations have taken the position that they were virtuous in their thinking and felt that the solution was to restrict the activities and speaking of those who disagreed, i.e. Censorship.

    My perspective is that I have the right to say anything I choose. Your job is to let me know how it affects you. I then can choose to either alter my words or persuade you of my perspective.

    I have only some idea how any other person may feel about any issue. I only know what my experience is. The only way you can know my experience and I can know your experience is for dialogue to take place.

    There is a huge tendency in this country (and probably much of the remainder of the world) to take the words or action of another personally. Frankly the actions of most people are rarely personal. In the offense we take of others actions and words or emotions tend to create barriers to true communication. Open unrestricted dialogue which does not cause immediate harm (yelling fire in a crowed auditorium is the classic example) is the only way we can learn from one another.

    Thank you for your perspective on how some costumes may be offensive to another. Frankly the entire Halloween event which is totally divergent from its origins is a weird event that is more related to the financial benefit than any real social or entertainment value. But that is a different discussion.

  7. i know this is very late (and there will be no awkwardness from me if this doesn’t get published for that or other reasons) but…

    @Greg: what you posted really reads like condescending apologism for bigotry under the guise of polite commentary. you’re putting the onus on everyone to correct you and educate you if what you say is wrong, rather than on yourself to consider your words first?

    also, you said: “There is a huge tendency in this country (and probably much of the remainder of the world) to take the words or action of another personally. Frankly the actions of most people are rarely personal. In the offense we take of others actions and words or emotions tend to create barriers to true communication. Open unrestricted dialogue which does not cause immediate harm (yelling fire in a crowed auditorium is the classic example) is the only way we can learn from one another.”

    bigotry DOES cause immediate harm, and people tend to take it personally BECAUSE it causes immediate harm.

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