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In my last Halloween column for this season, we’re going to hit on a bit of a serious topic, because it’s a serious holiday sometimes. Without fail during this season, I will see at least one of the following costumes: a Mexican complete with bare feet, a large sombrero, a black mustache and a poncho; a Native American in a sexy dress with a petite feathered headdress, also sexy; a white person dressed up as a black character, which in and of itself is great, until they break out the black face paint; some type of Asian costume, sometimes one that mixes different country’s cultures, because apparently, all Asian countries are one and the same. I’ve also occasionally seen a homosexual costume, usually with an overemphasized walk and lisp and lots of talk about clothes, and a more recent favorite, the “Arab” costume that the person usually ends up calling the “terrorist costume.”
Allow me a moment to facepalm.
Every Halloween for the past several years, there’s been more and more talk about appropriate Halloween costumes, and not in the “sexy vs. not sexy” sense, although that does factor into it. It’s more of the “is this sensitive to other cultures because my culture is not the center of the universe” sense. The public is getting better at policing these types of things, such as on Saturday, when the press called out Julianne Hough for going blackface on her costume, which was followed quickly by an apparently sincere apology from Hough. A little further back in 2011, a group at Ohio University created a poster ad campaign titled “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume,” calling out the popular practice of using certain common elements from popular world cultures as Halloween costumes (see list above). Of course, that devolved into a meme, but the original posters are still great.
Whenever this happens, there’s always the same response from many people: Who cares? These people are just having fun. Stop being so sensitive.
Well, they say that about sexual assault and harassment, too. And those are also not OK.
However, I know that many people out there who stray down this costume path do it because they’ve grown up in a society that, well, just does stuff like this, and they’ve never heard otherwise. I don’t blame you for following your society’s norms if you don’t know why it’s wrong, but that doesn’t make it right. And let me tell you briefly (briefly) why.
There are several reasons why these types of costumes are so problematic, and it all boils down to one core concept: a lack of respect. For example, if we have no real respect for other people, then when we want to feel better than them, we make fun of them. We belittle them. We pick and prod at certain key elements that we find funny or amusing, and that in turn makes them seem less than people.
When we do it to a group, this is stereotyping. It makes a group of people less than people by assigning them certain elements that are recognizable and quite often flawed: All Native Americans wear headdresses; all Mexicans wear sombreros; all Asian women paint their faces white; all geeks wear glasses and suspenders and live in their mother’s basements (I wear contacts, skirts, live in the upstairs bedroom and do not regularly paint my face white, thanks). But by selecting these particular cultural traits, we are utterly ignoring the cultural significance behind them. It’s like when someone takes the Bible — or, for our local readers, the Book of Mormon — and burns it. It’s like when protesters take the American flag and burn it.
Granted, those instances are intentional forms of disrespect, but the significance of them is the same. And those get quite a bit more how-dare-yous compared to you’re-soooo-sensitives. It’s interesting that in the same country that so aggressively defends its own perceived culture (it’s the American way!), we’re very quick to take apart other cultures to suit our needs.
This is not a matter of people being “too sensitive.” It’s a matter of continually stereotyping, of continually making groups of people less than people for our own entertainment. It continues a tradition of flawed beliefs of other cultures and peoples and reinforces these flaws into a new generation that sees a war bonnet as sexy or a Mexican as dirty and poor. In the end, those stereotypes become all we see, and we miss out on learning the true wonders of our world’s beautiful diversity.
This Halloween, please make an effort to be more respectful. You can still have fun and look great without relegating other people to “just a costume.” Happy Halloween!