With Halloween just around the corner, we are sadly going to see terrible costume choices. And not just outfits of bad taste, but in fact ignorant and blatantly racist cultural stereotypes. It is with great disappointment and continuous head shakes that I write this article because in an ideal world, this would not require explaining … and re-explaining.
When picking your costume for this year, remember these simple rules: Race is not a costume. Ethnicity is not a costume. Culture is not a costume.
When you choose to dress up as a particular race or ethnicity, and a certain image pops into your head that you feel is representative of a entire group of people, ask yourself why. Why is this the image you think of? And what justifies it, if it is justified at all? Why does it even matter?
These images have meaning. And they are likely stereotypes consistently reinforced in the media, that have over time become ingrained and conditioned in our society and the public psyche. They perpetrate (almost always) negative, simplistic ideas of people in order to justify marginalizing them. When you accept these stereotypes and play them off as casual costumes, you reaffirm them, and are saying that the negative effects of these stereotypes do not matter.
American media still portrays Arabs and Muslims as threats or terrorists by nature. Indigenous women are still portrayed as marginalized, ignored, and impoverished. Black women are overly sexualized or seen as “unfeminine.” Black males are seen as “thugs” — the situation in Ferguson is a blatant example of that one, as is the killing of Trayvon Martin … which someone did turn into a costume, by the way. Evidently, these are not “just” costumes. These are casual displays of how the Western world sees racialized people. How else would someone be able to further dehumanize a Black teen who was murdered and treated unfairly by the U.S. justice system, and turn him into a racist caricature?
I cannot stress enough how race is not a costume. There are experiences, prejudices, and various forms of oppression that racialized people are forced to deal with, on a daily basis. To minimize that into a harmful, simplistic stereotype is insensitive and ignorant, especially if you are part of the social class or group that has for centuries politically marginalized the group.
And no, a witch’s green skin colour is not the same thing as my tanned skin, or Beyonce’s brown skin. We are not mythical, magical creatures … we actually exist.
Of course, dress up as any character you would like. This actually does not require you to alter yourself to fit into a particular stereotype of a “race” or to paint your skin. Dress up as Princess Tiana regardless of the colour of your skin; dress as Hermione regardless of the colour of your skin. Colouring your skin is unnecessary, and at that point you are not simply going as the character, but now you are attempting to go as another race, implying it is part of a costume. There’s no need to change who you are to enjoy a costume.
In our world now, particularly here in Canada and the U.S., you cannot be ahistorical or apolitical in these actions; things like blackface have a long, complex racist history. None of us exist outside of this society — its politics and history. Our actions have meaning, implications, and historical relevance. That is generally how living in a shared society works.
This also extends to different sorts of harmful stereotypes. For example, this generic and humbly titled “Seductive Squaw” costume is playing on the racist and misogynistic stereotype of Indigenous women as promiscuous and passive enough for men. This is a centuries old stereotype from the colonization of what is now known as Canada and the U.S., which justified the rape and killing of Indigenous women. “Squaw” is what Europeans used as a term referring to female genitalia, and signified an ugly, ungraceful, older woman.
The less obviously negative stereotype, the American Indian Princess, refers to a young, sexualized girl. Even today, these insults are used against Indigenous women, who are still stereotyped as sexually deviant, disgraceful, “druggies”, generally immoral, etc. A costume like the “Sexy Native American Princess“, normalizes that.
Similarly, culture is a complex reality for people and includes historical, social, political and sometimes religious context. It is not something you can take on or off, or treat as a casual joke, especially given the long history of degrading and infantilizing cultures, often by colonizers, in order to erase them.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re considering a racial-, ethnic- or culturally-inspired costume, ask yourself: Would you wear that outfit around a group of the people whose race, ethnicity or culture is being depicted? You or your friends might think it’s hilarious, or sexy or clever. Imagine walking through a party where that group is the majority. And perhaps you are not racist. Of course not! But that does not erase the racist action itself.
If you’re response is … I don’t really care. That’s actually OK too. Your views are transparent. You have inadvertently dressed up as “white privilege.”