By Rosie Alger
Elm Staff Writer
In the weeks leading up to Halloween, I have seen countless articles circling the internet calling out a wide variety of tasteless, offensive, and even hateful costume ideas that are sold and worn throughout the country. It may seem obvious what is harmful, and what is in good fun, but do people really understand the damage caused by these costumes that mock entire groups of people? At what point do offensive costumes become oppressive?
There are plenty of fun, silly, clever, or spooky Halloween costume ideas out there, so why have I been bombarded by so many photos of racist, sexist, and homophobic/transphobic outfits? Spirit Halloween, along with several other retailers, released a Caitlyn Jenner costume that references her Vanity Fair cover. Acording to CNN, “Critics say the costume mocks the transgender community and promotes transphobia by reducing Jenner to a stereotype.” The article also quoted an online petition calling for the retailer to stop selling the costume and said, “Do not turn Caitlyn Jenner into a costume. Your profit will only lead to greater transphobia and marginalization of an already at-risk community.”
This recent incident is only one addition to the onslaught of racist and offensive Halloween costumes that seem to crawl their way back into every year. Countless overtly sexualized and inaccurate costumes claiming to be modeled after Native Americans, Mexicans, Geishas and other Asian cultures, and even Black American culture somehow seem to make a profit every year. It is not unusual to see children dressed in these costumes as well, and, as appalling as it sounds, there are still plenty of people out there putting on black-face before a night of trick-or-treating. Let me get something very clear. Black face is never an option. Never. Even if you want to dress up as Kim and Kayne for Halloween, just stick to the clothes and forget about the face paint. Trust me, you don’t need it.
The people who don these costumes may think that they are being funny or even just honoring a culture different from their own, but the danger lies in their misconception of cultural appropriation and of the difference between offensive and oppressive.
Offensive jokes insult some individuals. They may be vulgar or lacking in class, but they do not affect society beyond the individual who feels offended. Something is oppressive when it plays off of the stereotypes, hardships, and prejudices that have plagued a whole group or culture of people throughout history. Halloween costumes that lump an entire of culture of people into a small collection of stereotypes is a prime example of oppressive behavior. These costumes combine cultural appropriation, picking and choosing which parts of a culture to claim as your own, with an undeniable mockery of the parts of a culture that are not understood or are viewed as lesser. This is particularly harmful because it reduces an identity into a costume or a joke, makes light of the oppression that has kept that minority group in a lower position in society. It normalizes a line of thinking that makes it acceptable for majority groups to shame or dismiss already disadvantaged minorities.
This problem has become so pervasive that students at Ohio University began fighting back with an online photo campaign. “The campaign, ‘We’re a culture, not a costume,’ features students of different races holding pictures of costumes of racial or ethnic stereotypes: a geisha, a suicide bomber, a Native American, a ‘Mexican on a donkey,’ a person with their skin painted black and a metal grill in their mouth,” wrote CNN. Unfortunately, even this effort to curb racism faced a backlash of hate-filled internet jokes. Edits and spoofs of the campaign’s posters were seen circling the web, and Taylor See, the student who designed the original images was quoted by CNN, saying, “These people that are putting out characters of vampires, dogs, robots, they don’t have anything better to do with their time? It’s silly. We’re talking about actual race, actual people that are actually affected. I guarantee you robots and dogs are not affected by what we’re trying to say. The most startling was an image of a monkey holding a picture of the black student featured in the original poster,” she said.
The main thing to remember is that costumes whose intention is to make fun of or highlight stereotypes are probably not a good idea for a fun Halloween getup. Instead of dressing up as a culture, gender, or sexuality that you may not understand, try sticking to a good old fashioned spooky creature or cartoon hero this Halloween. When it comes down to it, prejudice is no one’s treat, and it certainly isn’t the trick we’re looking for.