Halloween season is here, and while you may have grown out of neighbourhood trick-or-treating, you’re never too old to dream up a cool costume and be someone else for a night. Know what is old, though? The fact that every year, we see examples of people who make utterly offensive costume choices.
“Cultures aren’t costumes” is a statement heard more often as society starts to understand how harmful these seemingly innocent choices can be. Real cultures cannot effectively be reduced to simple costumes, especially when you consider how privilege and historical inaccuracies impact them, and how stereotypes shape them.
Not sure if you’re appropriating someone’s culture? Want to make sure your costume is creative and not crass? One day, articles like this won’t be necessary—but until then, here are some tips to help you pick the perfect costume, not a problematic one.
Let’s start with some of our top offenders. One of the most cringe-worthy costume faux pas is anything utilizing blackface—the act of artificially darkening one’s skin to imitate a Black person. Blackface originated with racist minstrel shows, a form of musical theatre that exploited and mocked Black people that began in America in the 1800s. This racist form of makeup is now a painfully lazy and stereotypical costume crutch. If the only way to create a convincing costume is to alter the colour of your skin, your costume isn’t good enough.
“I’ve lived [across Canada] in London, Toronto, Victoria, and Sudbury, and I have seen so many disturbing things [including] white folks in blackface and mops pretending to be Bob Marley,” says OmiSoore Dryden, who previously taught a course on gender, race and racism at Sudbury’s Thorneloe University and is now a visiting professor at Ryerson University. “I strongly believe that with a long and vibrant colonial history, the idea of dressing as a culture is not thought of as appropriation or disrespect.”
Journalist Kayla Greaves, whose work often centres on race and culture, remembers being directly confronted this form of disrespect during Halloween in her high school. “Two of my peers came to school in full blackface, claiming to be dressed as Venus and Serena Williams,” she recalls. “A few friends and I confronted them, but they gave the typical ‘It’s just a costume’ excuse. When we said, ‘Being Black isn’t a costume,’ they implied we were being ‘too sensitive.’”
But blackface is a sensitive matter, given its disturbing past and present iterations. Deferring to people with lived experience is always a good gauge on who gets to define offensiveness. In this case, Black students expressing their discomfort should have been enough—instead, their feelings were deemed invalid. Simply put, don’t do it.
Ottawa mom and writer Kate Jaimet wrote a Toronto Star piece recently lamenting the fact that her daughter was once sent home from school for wearing a “Native princess” costume. Jaimet didn’t agree that the costume was offensive and argued that conversations around cultural appropriation “confine each of us into a tiny ethnic box.” What Jaimet doesn’t seem to understand, however, is that a “Native princess” may just be a pretty costume to her daughter, but those garments are extremely meaningful within the communities that they represent.
Tanya Talaga, author of Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, breaks it down: “What other culture is deemed acceptable to copy for a ‘fun night’ by taking actual ceremonial objects such as headdresses or jingle dresses and reproducing them en mass, then sticking them in plastic bags and sold in stores? Cultural genocide happened on the continent of North America. It is not acceptable in any way and doing so further demeans Indigenous people.” Whether it’s a “Native princess” or “Sexy squaw” or “Indian chief,” these stereotypical costumes are nothing more than distasteful versions of cultural aspects that have significant meaning.
When you consider the history of genocide, erasure and societal atrocities that Indigenous people have faced—and continue to face—turning those cultures into costumes is akin to throwing salt in a wound.
The “Sexy Geisha”
Frankly speaking, one of the ugliest attempts at a “sexy” costume is the “sexy geisha.” It’s embarrassing enough to know that someone actually spent money on a cheap, ill-fitting satin mini dress and stuck two chopsticks in a struggle bun, but realizing the origin of the costume makes it even worse.
Based off of the geisha of Japan, cultural icons that were female entertainers and courtesans dating back to the 7th century, these costumes take a historical archetype and turn it into something one-dimensional. The packaged outfits also often take different symbols from various Asian cultures and combine them into a single one look. And as one of the women of Japanese heritage said in this Buzzfeed video, “People don’t put chopsticks in their hair in Japan, ever. Chopsticks are for eating.”
Culturally offensive costumes aren’t the only ones to avoid. Misguided costume choices are often borne out of traumatic news stories, historical events, or mocking violence and sexual abuse as well. “Even before social media, people were looking for a reaction or shock value—they wanted to be remembered if even for something horrifying,” shares educator Roopa Cheema, who facilitates anti-racism workshops in Toronto and surrounding areas.
Some of these shock value costumes include historical figures like Adolf Hitler, Christopher Columbus or Anne Frank—or more recent ones like Bill Cosby or Trayvon Martin. Not only do costumes like these have the potential to be traumatizing for others, but they say a heck of a lot about the person who chose to wear them. An easier option? Just hang a sign around your neck that says, “I’m a callous jerk.”
Why do people do it?
So, why do people fall into these costume blunders at Halloween? There are a number of answers.
“I think some folks believe that since they are ‘colourblind’ and ‘don’t see colour’ that any person or culture is fair game as a Halloween costume,” says Dryden. “Folks dislike having to think critically about their actions and believe that since they didn’t ‘intend’ harm, no harm occurred.”
Oftentimes, reflection comes in the form of a constructive call-out by someone else. TV producer and writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang did this when a guest at a Halloween party in Newfoundland showed up in blackface. “I had to take time out of enjoying myself to give the 101 on why blackface is horrible,” she said. “He apologized but played the ‘I didn’t know any better’ card. That is no longer—and really never was—a viable excuse.”
Know better, do better
There are endless ways to participate in Halloween hijinks and be creative, hilarious, and sexy without being offensive.
The safest bet might be to go for goblins and ghouls rather than imitating real people. “Stay away from dressing as celebrities or historical/political figures,” advises Cheema. Some of the most offensive costumes she’s seen are slave owners with enslaved Black people in tow, cops with arrested or murdered Black people, or people known for domestic assault like Ray Rice—often utilizing blackface.
Or, if you want to find a way dress up like your favourite celebrity or movie character without being offensive, do it without the crutch of altering your skin colour. “You want to go as Prince? Cool. Get a purple suit and a white, bell sleeve button-up. People will still recognize you as the star without you having to paint your skin,” says Greaves.
It’s important to consider why you want to rock a certain costume, especially if you think it might be problematic. “If I had to give advice, I’d ask a question: why?” says Dryden. “I believe if someone insists on the right to racist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynist portrayal as costume, in the end they have shared a lot of information with me about who they are as a person.”
At the very least, Google is free—use it to educate yourself and avoid missteps that others have made in the past. Don’t let ignorance make you the latest Halloween costume casualty this year. Know better, do better, then go forth and have fun.
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