The Search for a Middle Ground in Halloween Costumes

By JESSICA CHOTINER ’17
Opinion Editor
Every Halloween over the past few years, I see the internet ablaze with articles warning us against taboo Halloween costumes. According to these articles, nothing is less forgivable, or more likely to incur fire and brimstone wrath than “cultural appropriation” in Halloween costumes.
But what is cultural appropriation? The ultimate source of knowledge, a.k.a., Wikipedia, defines it as “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.” That does not sound so bad does it? I can think of plenty of examples of cultures “adopting” elements from each other. For instance, if it was not for the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, we would all still be living in the year MMXVI, and getting someone’s phone number would be harder than it already is.
The world is full of social boundaries, lines that should not be crossed but are often terribly difficult to see. To me, cultural appropriation is different than cultural exchange. Cultural exchange is wonderful, and without it, we would all lack the richness of music, food, and literature that we enjoy, and the rest of the world would lack blue jeans. Cultural appropriation though, is taking aspects of a culture, often times a culture that has been subjugated, and manipulating those traditions to fit one’s own purpose without regard for their social or spiritual significance. It is an interesting issue at this time of year because Halloween can bring out our most racially insensitive hijinks. Halloween costumes such as “Sexy Geisha” or “Mariachi Man,” depreciate cultural traditions and pay no mind to the origins and symbolism of the people or clothing they mimic.
How do we tell if a costume is going to be hurtful? Should we even care? While I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be racially marginalized and will not make any statements to undercut the hurtfulness of costumes that stereotype various ethnicities. I can offer an explanation as to why people choose controversial costumes.
Halloween is a curious holiday, in that in it is modern celebration, social norms are turned inside out. This is true for the individual, as well as for cultural norms. On the individual level, a person can be whomever they choose on Halloween, regardless of his everyday self. Of course the boisterous and confident may dress in loud and daring costumes that suit their personalities, but people can be surprising. The strict and quiet TA may dress as a carrot or a scantily clad vampire.
Often a Halloween costume has only a general and shallow intent –– to be funny, to be sexy, to be scary. Obvious manifestations of humor or sex appeal are popular. Often, the easiest way to be funny or sexy is to be taboo, and to specifically target that which usually goes unsaid. Yet, there may be more to taboo costume choices than ease of execution.
On a cultural level, Halloween is a time when our society exposes itself, a time when we directly address certain unspoken cultural themes. The costumes we wear cannot be veiled representations of an idea or person, or no one would “get it.” In a sense, it is a time when we are all a little freer to do as we please. We are hidden both by costumes and by the nighttime, and the holiday itself has an air of wickedness, another enticing taboo.
Other days of the year, it is less common to be so focused on our aesthetic. We focus on what we need to accomplish in a day, on what people will think of our work or what we have to say, and while we care about our looks, we assume that they are not the pivotal standard of evaluation. Yet on Halloween, the focus is entirely on the costume, on the charade.
Whether we realize it or not, that amounts to a lot of pressure. Not only can people judge us on how we look, but also on our interpretation of what it means to have a ‘good’ costume, a costume that achieves the goal of humor or sex appeal for instance. As a consequence people choose to go with costumes that will guarantee a specific reaction. Regarding “racist” costumes, such as a costume of an “Illegal Alien” (this costume is actually available for purchase), the focus is shifted from our personal aesthetic to the subject of the costume –– another person, another race, a social issue that is separate from the wearer. A costume that targets an issue or person separate from oneself diffuses the pressure.
Is this wrong? Is it possible that putting on another’s skin, and traditional garb, can bridge cultural divides? The answer is a resounding “no,” when it comes to something like the “Illegal Alien” costume. That costume makes light of a serious social issue, just as others that supposedly represent a particular ethnicity often make light of that culture’s history or tradition.
Even though it might be the purpose of modern Halloween to poke fun at our everyday selves, it is somewhat intuitive that using a ceremonial Iroquois headdress as the centerpiece of your “sexy” costume would be offensive.  As I said, the line of “political correctness” is blurry, and I do not have an answer.  I would err on the side of caution and wear a costume that avoids making someone else the butt of the joke.

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