Sunday, October 30, 2011

Some Halloween Thoughts: Costuming, Appropriation, and Stereotypes

I love Halloween. I love the fun-spirited decorations, the chance to have fun with friends, and the fact that you can enjoy Halloween simplistically or elaborately. It's fun for children and adults alike, and it happens in the autumnal beauty of the best time of year.

But that same sense of free-wheeling fun opens some doors to deep-seated issues. You've probably seen the campaign started by Taylor See and her friends from Ohio University. "We're a Culture, Not A Costume," the series of pictures reads, each with someone from a minority group holding up a picture of his/her culture being boiled down into one stereotype for a Halloween costume.

Many people praised the effort to raise awareness about the consequences of such demeaning costume decisions. Others took it as an opportunity to mock the attempt. By copying the style of the campaign, an internet meme has popped up mocking its message. It includes things like a golden retriever holding a picture of a man in a dog costume, a cartoon unicorn holding a picture of someone in a unicorn costume, etc.

The mockery ranged from the silly to the mindlessly cruel, escalating to a picture of a monkey holding up a picture of Taylor See herself, an African American woman.

She took the high road, responding to this blatant racism by saying, "That was just awful. The fact that people think that's OK shows why this discussion is still relevant and important, unfortunately."

Many of the people participating in the mocking photos say they are doing so to point out the need for people to lighten up, to see a costume as just a costume.

But what is a costume, really?

Even playful articles, like this one from MSN revealing what your costume says about you, point out that costuming is a conscious choice that reveals something about the costume-wearer:
“Halloween costumes are often an open window to some of your inner desires, buried feelings, or subconscious,” says Nancy W. Berk, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Pittsburgh, PA. A costume could grant a one-night reprieve from being “pent up,” thus opening the door to life on the wild side or lets you finally show off the witty personality you suppress to maintain a professional persona. “It’s a safe way to express things like sexuality and allows someone to be irreverent without many, or any, consequences,” Berk says.
Indeed, the very concept of being able to release suppressed thoughts in a public forum has been at the base of costuming in general. Consider the Mardi Gras Krewe du Vieux who always use the Carnival as an opportunity to voice an irreverent opinion on political issues. They took the 2006 Mardi Gras parade as a chance to mock the response to Hurricane Katrina with signs asking France to buy back Louisiana and a group of marchers using a "Fridge over Troubled Water" theme. A USA Today article from the time points out the need for healing through satire:
Mardi Gras has long been an occasion for the city to laugh at tragedy and aim barbs at authorities, and given all the pain New Orleans has suffered in the past year the irreverence should reach new heights this season.
Costuming, at it's very core, is about the ability to express something that can't always be expressed. A chance to be someone you are usually not. Sometimes, that something is silly, but perhaps silliness is what's missing from the costume-wearer's daily life. That's been at the core of many of my costumes. One year I went as a blue crayon. I wasn't making a political statement, but I was taking an opportunity to be silly and carefree in the midst of a typically busy and serious lifestyle.

Sometimes, costumes can offend other people. I'm sure that were politicians and others in charge during the  Katrina crisis that were offended by the Krewe du Vieux. That's kind of the point. The costumes acted as a way to express a frustration with the system that would otherwise go unheard. It was a platform for discussion that reached people in a way no other form of communication would. I'm not saying that a costume can never offend and that just because someone is offended we have to stop using them.

However, I feel the people who think the "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign needs to lighten up are not truly examining the implications of such costumes. And doing so might seem a bit frightening because no one wants to admit to participating (even as a spectator) in a racist or oppressive culture.

But that's exactly what happens when people put on a costume and appropriate a culture. This article from Bitch Magazine on the topic received a lot of negative comments, mostly calls for people to--again--"lighten up." The comments prompted Adrienne K. to respond in an open letter on Native Appropriations:
I already know how our conversation would go. I'll ask you to please not dress up as a bastardized version of my culture for Halloween, and you'll reply that it's "just for fun" and I should "get over it." You'll tell me that you "weren't doing it to be offensive" and that "everyone knows real Native Americans don't dress like this." You'll say that you have a "right" to dress up as "whatever you damn well please." You'll remind me about how you're "Irish" and the "Irish we're oppressed too." Or you'll say you're "German", and you "don't get offended by people in Lederhosen." 
But you don't understand what it feels like to be me. I am a Native person. You are (most likely) a white person. You walk through life everyday never having the fear of someone mis-representing your people and your culture. You don't have to worry about the vast majority of your people living in poverty, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, hunger, and unemployment caused by 500+ years of colonialism and federal policies aimed at erasing your existence. You don't walk through life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don't represent who you are at all. You don't know what it's like to care about something so deeply and know at your core that it's so wrong, and have others in positions of power dismiss you like you're some sort of over-sensitive freak.
At the very least, continuing to dress up in stereotypical ways dismisses real people's responses. Even if the costume-wearers didn't intend to offend anyone with these costume (and, honestly, racism and culture appropriation are so common in this culture, that I can see how some people--especially those who haven't had to deal with being stereotyped or mocked themselves--could truly think their costumes were just for fun), they can't continue to say that now that people are coming forward and saying, "Hey, I'm offended." To continue to degrade and stereotype entire cultures of people under the guise of "fun" is to dismiss these heartfelt and eloquent calls for recognition. Once you know that someone is offended by your actions, if you keep doing them, your intention is to offend. And, you're right, you have the "right"--whatever that's worth--to continue doing so. Free speech means you can put on your "PocaHottie" costume and enjoy your night, but it does not mean that you get to do so without consequences, and one of those consequences is denying the validity of the pain that action causes. 

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