You Might Wanna Rethink That: A Guide to Not Being Accidentally Racist this Halloween
by Patrice Caldwell, Meredyth Grange, and Diversity Committee. PSA edited by the lovely Sravanti Tekumalla!
Illegal Alien, Seductive Sqaw, Sexy Geisha Girl, Gypsy, Pimp…the list of racist costumes seen in stores, purchased, and worn gets more extensive each Halloween. As the list gets longer and longer so does the list of excuses people give: “It’s a joke”, “I’m honoring your culture not mocking it”, “But it’s a classic”, “My (insert appropriate cultural group) friends think/said it was fine”, “but I’m (of that cultural group).” The excuse used does not matter because whatever it may be, the fact remains that it is simply not okay. As Wellesley students it is clear that we can and we must do better both for ourselves and for our community. It is for this reason that we’d like to urge you to be creative this Halloween and to think about what your costume might be saying before you wear it out.
Quick history lesson: Halloween, like many holidays, has been consumerized by the society we are a part of, but Halloween wasn’t always a time when people ran around in blackface dressing as the Jamaican Bobsled Team or a Sexy Senorita. Halloween is actually a mixture of a lot of different cultural traditions and the origins of the holiday are debated, however, many people think Halloween originated with the Celtic festival of Samhain. This was a time when people would wear costumes and light bonfires to ward off or appease roaming spirits. Then in the eighth century November 1st was designated by Pope Gregory II, as a time to honor saints and martyrs. Thus all Saints’ Day was born. The evening before was known as all Hallows Eve’. From this came Halloween, a time of community based events, often secular based, with activities such as trick-or-treating.
We know that many of you are not trying to be intentionally racist and problematic with your costume choices so we thought it might be helpful to go through a list of common excuses that are given right before someone wears a racist Halloween costume. Hopefully this helps you evaluate your own costume choice
“It’s a joke”
While it is understandable that people like to have fun on Halloween, it’s never okay, for instance, to dress as an “Illegal Alien” as a joke*. Wellesley, we are smart and creative people, we can do better than wearing an orange jumpsuit and an alien mask. It’s easy for that costume to pass as clever, but what you did not consider is that the group of people that you are mocking with that particular costume is currently organizing for political and social action all over the country in order to stop the violence and constant denial of their personhood. Wait so with that costume you managed to mock the political struggle of a couple thousand people and the violence perpetuated against them because of their citizenship status? Yikes! I’m sure you didn’t mean to, but any time you are trying to dress up as a group of people, think about what and who (not only the people, but the histories and political struggles as well) you might be mocking with that costume. If that does not make you think twice then think about how you might be unknowingly mocking family members and friends of your Wellesley siblings with certain costumes.
*Sidenote: People are not illegal. The term you should be using is undocumented citizens.
“I’m honoring your culture not mocking it”
Honoring cultures sounds like such a great idea! Except, I want you to articulate out-loud to yourself how dressing up as a Seductive Sqaw/Sexy Indian Princess is honoring Native American culture. If you can’t come up with three reasons that you feel 100% good about, that might be an indication that this is not a good idea. A further indication is if you have to answer the following questions with yes, no, and no respectively.
1) Does your costume involve a very specific caricature of how Native American identity should visually be represented?
2) If I asked you, would you be able to describe to me the cultural/religious significance of any piece of your costume?
3) Given that some of your Wellesley classmates identify themselves as Native American, would you be comfortable telling them that you are honoring their culture by dressing up in the costume you had planned?
Fun Fact: Squaw is actually a word that is used to demean and exoticize Native women so again rethinking that costume choice might be a good idea..
Edit: When evaluating any potentially racist costume, even if you can answer yes to #2 you’re still not in the clear because wearing someone’s culture as a costume for parties/celebrations not connected to that culture is pretty inappropriate don’t you think?
“But it’s a classic”
Really? Maybe dressing as a sexy Senorita has been a costume that has long taken shelf in costume stores but that doesn’t make it a classic. Nor does it make it okay.
“My (insert culture group) friends think it’s okay”
Your friend does not represent the entirety of [insert cultural group here]. Just because they did not say anything when you put on your costume, or even if they said it was okay, does not necessarily mean that it is.
“But I’m of that Cultural Group”
Okay, but people that are a part of cultural groups can still perpetuate harmful stereotypes of those groups and add histories of disrespect and marginalization.
In conclusion, WELLESLEY WE CAN DO BETTER! Challenge yourself to think outside the box. There are so many other things you can dress as, racially based costumes are unnecessary…Remember that if you chose to wear a culturally inappropriate costume you could be insulting one of your friends, classmates, or fellow community members. Is the first impression you want to make on a future classmate the time that they saw you on the Senate bus in a racist costume? Of course not! Think first, check yourself, and help your friends out with their costume choices. Wear what you feel comfortable in, and be safe.
I’m a little confused about the definition of cultural appropriation and its significance: Sure friend! Here ya go!
Can someone explain a little more about why wearing a Native American headdress would be problematic: Why of course! Here’s some helpful words: this and also this
Woah people actually dress up as black people for parties? Yes.
These were helpful! I’d like to do some further reading: Right on! Go here and here