(Mis)understanding Halloween: We cannot costume cultural respect

    Photo by Lucy Wang / North by Northwestern

    I’m a white woman, and Halloween scares me.

    It’s the day – the holiday, the celebration – when my campus, my friends and I have a conversation about racism. It’s just one day. Someone recently reached out to me with a general idea. A prompt, if you will.

    Halloween is a time when cultural appropriation is especially confusing. It is hard to tell which costumes are offensive, and why some are funny and others are insensitive...

    “Halloween is a time when cultural appropriation is especially confusing.”

    Is it, though? It’s pretty black and white, quite literally. Halloween is a costumed holiday, and when we celebrate by donning exaggerated and inaccurate attire of another culture, we appropriate life and reality for one day, one night, one drink, and it becomes offensive. We know the excuses and apologies: “It’s just for fun,” “I didn’t mean it that way,” “You’re being oversensitive and taking this too seriously.” And here’s the problem: culture as costume minimizes differences into a single image and ignores the real value behind culture. We lose, marginalize and bury the person and individual intricacies. Dressing up on Halloween involves putting on and performing something other than real. Humans are real, their culture is real, and as individuals, they are unpredictably and intricately different. Costumes mock and tokenize this.

    Graphic by Lucero Segundo

    “It is hard to tell which costumes are offensive.”

    I challenge this confusion. With a #DressToRespect campaign launched by the Native American & Indigenous Student Alliance in its third year running, we have an arsenal of questions to determine if a costume is racist. Ask yourself and your friends: Is my costume supposed to be funny? If so, is the humor based on making fun of real people, human traits or cultures? Does my costume represent a culture that is not my own? Does my costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes? Does my costume packaging include the words “traditional,” “ethnic,” “colonial,” “cultural,” “authentic” or “tribal?” Does my costume perpetuate stereotypes, misinformation, or historical and cultural inaccuracies? Would I be embarrassed or ashamed if someone from the group I’m portraying saw me wearing this? These questions are from the image to the right, which was designed by NU student Lucero Segundo and has been shared by Northwestern students across social media. The questions also reflect an email sent by Dean Howard in 2010 urging students to consider the cultural sensitivity of their costumes. The year prior, some Northwestern students reportedly dressed up in blackface.

    Struggle, stigma and oppression find seasonal exposure come Halloween, and that’s terrifying. We cannot trick-or-treat for cultural respect like we can a king-size candy bar. Cultural respect and genuine celebration are no sweet, quick stroll to a stranger’s doorstep; they are rights that real people with real stories deserve and work for year-round and life-long.

    My perspective is but one voice, and it does not include experiences of racism directed towards me. I’m a white woman, and Halloween scares me because racism scares me. It’s an injustice that my campus, my friends and I can have a conversation about and work to eliminate everyday.

    Will we?

    How? This question has answers. #DressToRespect, yes, but go beyond the hashtag.


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