Racism is Halloween's spookiest costume
Since we are now caught between two major fall holidays, let’s take time to reflect on their cultural significance.
As children, costumes and candy are the most exciting parts of Halloween. As we get older, Halloween costumes become vehicles for showcasing our “wild side” to friends and cohorts. The costumes get darker, the themes more mature, and, sometimes, they cross a line. In particular, racism and sexism creep into the picture.
Commercial Halloween costumes are primarily marketed to white people — see the models in any Halloween catalog — and often represent minorities offensively. Major Halloween outlets like Spirit Halloween and Party City have costume categories like “Cowboys & Indians” and “Geishas & Ninjas” (yes, grouped together) marketed to adults. The catch-all label “International Costumes” displays varying degrees of exoticism, in which each item falls into a funny-or-sexy dichotomy.
This nonmutual expression of objectification amounts to fetishization and cultural appropriation because it does not recognize someone’s individuality or acknowledge any historical implications.
Racist costumes, whether inadvertent or intentional, are typically meant to be funny or sexy. Funny costumes are generally marketed to men, while sexy costumes are marketed to women as “exotic” alternatives to other hypersexualized costume choices. Sexualization of women on Halloween is its own issue; women should be free to choose sexy costumes if they wish, but sexy should not be the only socially acceptable option.
College women in particular are encouraged to “let loose” on Halloween. Culturally specific costumes for women are usually tight or scanty, and they promote an “exotic,” sexually alluring figure of femininity. This sexualization acts at the intersection of sexism and racism because it objectifies both women and cultures.
Otherness, in the sense of simplifying someone’s sociocultural identity, has its roots in imperialism and cultural appropriation. Aren’t Halloween costumes meant to be fun and entertaining? Racial stereotypes are inappropriate and offensive, especially when they are taken so lightheartedly. When you dress up as a cultural representation, you reduce that culture to a few negative, inaccurate elements. This is why Native American and Blackface costumes are so offensive — they exploit historical oppression without recognizing the suffering of the people being represented.
Though less visible, Thanksgiving celebrations are also rooted in racism. The Pilgrim narrative, in which Americans identify the long-suffering Pilgrim as the hero, demotes the Native American population to helpers who allowed the white Pilgrims to succeed.
The history of Native American genocide in our country is a harsh reality. Some Native Americans today do not participate in Thanksgiving, and instead recognize a National Day of Mourning. The Wampanoag people, among others, are calling attention to the misremembrance of this history and criticizing the fact that Thanksgiving has become a celebration of the Pilgrim narrative instead of honoring the Harvest Festival.
It is important to recognize the racism surrounding our celebrations. Too often we brush off cultural appropriation as “honoring” a custom we do not understand. Respect for another culture is not the same as wearing “foreign” garb or eating “ethnic” food. Even these phrases are part of the problem. When we celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving, we need to be mindful of our behavior so as not to distort the true nature of these holidays.