Halloween Costumes and Cultural Authenticity?

By Marc Johnston, MRN Past-Chair
(Note: Below are my personal thoughts and do not necessarily represent the MRN Leadership Team or membership.)

When I think about this season, several things come to mind: beautiful changing leaf colors (one thing I really miss living in southern California), apple cider and pumpkin-flavored everything, and racist Halloween costumes.  Indeed, Halloween seems to be the time when people feel like their bigotry can come out of the closet – but all in good spirits of the holiday, right?  Well, I don’t think it’s that simple, nor should it be rationalized so easy.

For instance, most of us would agree that it’s okay to dress up like someone you’re not during Halloween, right?  Most people are not witches, vampires, pirates, or specific celebrities.  But what happens when the person you’re dressing up as represents an actual group of people – a group of people that continue to face historical legacies oppression?

Let me share a personal Halloween example: A few years ago a white-identified friend of mine dressed up like a “Geisha” for Halloween.  She had the outfit, make-up, wig, and even the walk, down to a tee.  I’ll have to admit, she looked like a stereotypical Geisha – straight out of Memoirs of a Geisha.  And while I had some internal conflicts about this not being appropriate (namely, that it perpetuates stereotypes of Japanese/Asian women that can lead to both physical and psychological harm), it wasn’t so easy to just say – “Hey, you’re being racist. You need to find another costume.”  But it was important for me and the rest of our friends to engage in a conversation about how we were feeling – since many of my other friends were actually more triggered than I (granted – none of us were Japanese, but all of us had very high levels of consciousness as social justice allies).

And so in our conversation, we found out that our “Geisha” friend has an aunt who is from Japan, who actually helped her with the authenticity of her costume.  She has cousins who are mixed Japanese and white, and she was doing this more as a sign of respect, which was why it was so important for her to have such a realistic outfit – not the ones you buy at a Halloween store (this explains why I thought her outfit looked so good!).  Hearing her reasoning was important for me and I think the conversation helped all of us to better understand what we could all learn from the situation about Halloween, cultural appropriation/authenticity, and family ties.

Hampshire Halloween Checklist: Is Your Costume Racist?
Hampshire College provides food for thought when deciding on a Halloween costume.

I appreciated hearing her views and rationale for what she was wearing because it made me think about mixed families and being mixed, and peoples’ claims attached to who they think they are.  And as this year’s Halloween approaches, I’m hopeful that the messages being sent through social media (see examples for Ohio University and Hampshire College) will get people to think about their costume planning before they offend someone.  But one thing about some of this messaging makes me curious about how those who consider themselves multiracial/mixed might fit into all of this.  For instance, one of the questions Hampshire asks for you to consider is: “Does my costume represent a culture that is not my own?”

Although I won’t get into a debate about how to define culture, I wonder how my friend in the Geisha costume would have answered this question.  She may have actually felt like she could claim her outfit as part of her culture, given her close family ties.  And as people explore and “discover” their roots in various ways, including DNA ancestry testing that is becoming increasingly popular across college campuses (see examples at Cornell and West Chester University), I wonder how people could start using these claims – e.g., “It’s okay if I dress up like Pocahontas because my DNA says I have native ancestry” – to rationalize their promotion of stereotypes that perpetuate racism on individual, ideological, and institutional levels.

In any case, this stuff can get messy, especially when considering mixedness – in all its forms.  So if you see something that doesn’t seem quite right to you this Halloween (or anytime for that matter), I encourage you to say something.  And hopefully that something will lead to shared learning about each others’ personal backgrounds and beliefs, and their connects to larger systems and social structures.

P.S. For those of you that will be going to the ACPA Convention in Las Vegas this March, MRN will be continuing these discussions in programs on multiraciality & passing and fluidity & ambiguity.  So be on the lookout for more details soon!

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One thought on “Halloween Costumes and Cultural Authenticity?

  1. Personally I’m a POC, and I’m not a fan of this costume activism. I wrote a piece on it and I’d love your thoughts: http://alexfelipe.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/thats-racist-but-not-how-you-might-think/#more-944

    “The analysis about the costume racism is the easy part. The hard part comes in the question of why we focus on the symbolized over the symbol?

    I’m sad to say, I think it’s because we middle-class Western people of colour more or less like it this way.

    Fighting the big fight against the status quo, against the socio-political-economic system we live in, against imperialism, threatens our own way of life….

    But to do anything about it means risking a loss of our own cherished position in the middle. We are second class citizens, but we aren’t at the bottom and we hold out hope that we can be one of the few allowed to rise up and join the elites up top.”

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