Aisha Durham, writer of __While Black: Millennial Race Play and the Post-Hip-Hop Generation, refers to Halloween as “a day of racial terror”. On this national holiday, racial cross-dressing is deemed a socially acceptable way to represent otherness. As BrandsOnSale (a business that sells Halloween attire) owner Jonathan Weeks once stated, “Halloween is one day out of the year you can dress up and be anything.” Yet, one must ask “Is this at all necessary?” In her assessment of this holiday on Refinery29, Alden Wicker furthermore describes Halloween as having a goofy or silly quality while allowing people to be clever and funny with their costumes. Nevertheless, these forms of entertainment seem to mask hidden hierarchies and tend to mock sacred acts or structures.
There are those who believe having a certain gripe with people dressing as other cultures during Halloween is an overreaction. These costumes seem to be, after all, created with the best intentions. Maybe we should drop a line about an old Samuel Johnson quote here… It seems many do not conduct the proper research before deciding to participate in racial cross-dressing. Let’s begin with the classic “Native Indian” outfit. What comes to mind? You may picture a Pocahontas figure wearing a buckskin dress with long braided hair. How about a Native chief having a traditional headdress with paint marked along his body and face? As Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, author of Beyond Buckskin, puts it, “Cultures or people are not costumes.” When it comes to the Native headdress, more specifically, this item is considered sacred among Native American cultures. The headdress is reserved for revered Native American elders who have earned the right to wear it. Moreover, it is considered a spiritual garb.
As with misinformed individuals wearing Native attire, comes the problem of Asian Halloween costumes. Have we learned nothing from Katy Perry? As Wicker explains, outfits such as the sari and kimono are deeply respected items in their culture. What’s even more interesting is how people seem to take many of these cultures and sexualize them. Haven’t we all heard of the Native Goddess Sexy Indian costume, or the sexy Geisha? It’s up for debate whether or not making a fetish out of certain ethnic groups is exercising freedom of speech. However, as is the case for the sexy Native Halloween costumes, what right does a Caucasian person (knowing the true history behind whites and Native Americans, among other things…) have dressing as a historically oppressed group?
Speaking of historically oppressed, let’s talk about blackface! From Julianne Hough’s Halloween costume impersonating Uzo Aduba’s Crazy Eyes character from Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” to people dressing up as Ray Rice and even Trayvon Martin (really??) in recent years, blackface should be considered a “no, no” among anyone outside of black people. Among those who live in the U.S., it is clearly understood that putting on blackface has racist implications. With this understanding, those who partake in this act are basically admitting that they don’t care who is offended or what symbols of oppression are perpetuated. To be clearer, blackface, or more specifically blackface minstrelsy, was developed in the 19th century as an act, where white actors covered their faces in brown or black paint and impersonated a black individual. This impersonation often depicted the black character as stupid, comical, or frivolous. Durham (2015) furthermore states that in the past, poor ethnic white men developed blackface “to reinforce White superiority by mocking African Americans” (Durham, 2015, p. 255).
Oh, and one quick note about the Trayvon Martin thing…
While cultural appropriation is one thing, mocking tragedy is another. During the year 2013, there were instances where white individuals (teens, adults, whateva’) decided to dress up as the slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin, blackface included, and posted these pictures on their social media accounts. Some even went as far as to play the part of George Zimmerman, the man responsible for Martin’s death. Whether or not you agreed with the verdict of the Martin-Zimmerman trial, there has to be some moral fiber when it comes to impersonating someone. A case can be made for those dressing in ethnic outfits or even blackface that those individuals are misguided or uneducated regarding the subject matter. However, impersonating a dead black teenager, knowing the controversial Martin-Zimmerman trial and America’s history of excessive force against blacks, is highly unnecessary.
While this post covers some interesting aspects about Halloween costumes, it should be noted that there are many others. Let’s try and make this year’s Halloween fun without impersonating other cultures/ethnicities in an ignorant manner. Instead of blackface, why not simply dress as the black individual being impersonated. It would be hard to believe that a person sporting a Chicago Bulls outfit having the number “23” and wearing a pair of Nike’s would be mistaken for anyone other than Michael Jordan. As for the sexy geisha, one may want to do some research before applying white powder and whatnot. Obviously, this blog post has put out a bit of wishful thinking. As Durham (2015) states, “Halloween reminds us of our longstanding social contract for the ordained day when White people are supposed to ‘get a pass’ for racial transgressions” (Durham, 2015, p. 255) while people of color must refrain from criticizing outfits tied to genocide, colonization, and orientalism. Nevertheless, someone (race aside) must be willing to get out of their seat and stand for what’s right!
**We hope you have a very Happy Halloween! Let us know what you think about this week’s Tuesday post. Shoot, we’d even be game if you sent us some pictures of what Halloween costumes you decided to wear this year!
Durham, A. (2015). _ While Black Millennial Race Play and the Post-Hip-Hop Generation. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 15(4), 253-259. doi: 10.1177/1532708615578414.