Halloween: A Culture, Not a Costume

Last year my Halloween post focused on gender, sexism, and sexual objectification through costume.  As Halloween approaches this year, I wanted to write about how often I cringe during my favorite holiday of the year, but I wasn’t sure of which tact to take.  Then last week when I was speaking at a high school, I overheard a student say, “I can’t wait for Halloween!  I’m gonna be an Indian.  I have real feathers, and I’m just gonna use some brown felt to create the dress, and I’ll put war paint on.”

I had my topic.

Then last night, my friend Carla posted the following images to Facebook.

I had my tact.





The posters are created by an Ohio University student group called Students Teaching About Racism in Society.  Their point is clear and powerful.

One of the most potent ways in which privilege manifests itself is that those with privilege feel that the world is their oyster, that everything is theirs for the taking.  This is one of the reasons that sexual violence is such a pervasive reality in our culture. This is the reason that colonization could be justified.  This is the logic behind manifest destiny.  This is even the reason why the U.S. seems to think that it can intervene in and invade just about any country it wishes.

At the interpersonal level, a lot of White folks (though the phenomenon is not exclusive to White people) seem to think that mocking a culture through the most stereotypical Halloween garb is acceptable.  The response I’ve often heard is, “People need to grow a sense of humor!”

What I find most frustrating about this reaction, though, is the inability to listen on the part of those defending the costumes.  We who benefit from privilege, whether it be Male, White, Straight, Able-Bodied, or any other form, seem to be “blessed” with the inability to effectively listen to those who are hurt by our privilege and our actions therein.  In fact, this is one of the ways in which privilege protects itself.  If those with privilege cannot or choose not to listen to those on the other side of the privilege coin, the system can be perpetuated, and privilege remains intact.

Thus, I challenge us to celebrate responsibly this Halloween.  Let us not only choose Halloween costume that are fun, but let us choose costumes that do not perpetuate racist or sexist stereotypes.  I even challenge us to take this one step further.  If those we are celebrating with have costumes that mock culture, remind them (in the most tactful, loving way possible) that the people they are mocking are a culture, not a costume.

I, for one, plan to be an Angry Bird.

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2 thoughts on “Halloween: A Culture, Not a Costume

  1. hey, Jamie! I love the post. I’m actually skipping Halloween costumes this year vecause I am taking a shift at the shelter to play games with the young people. I know that in the past I have enjoyed mocking my own culture through costumes based on political figureheads like bachmann and palin. What are your thoughts on going into political critiques through costume?

  2. Awesome costume.
    Just watched your video “The Wall”. Damn, you’re a good public speaker! Kinda want to attend one of these presentations now.

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