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.