Culture vs Costume

I love Halloween.

I love Halloween, I love walking into a store and directly into a skeleton decoration, I love finding obscure cemeteries that are projecting horror movies on weeknights, and I love costumes.

I think I’ve been virtually every Disney princess there is. I was an ‘80s prom queen, a flapper, a southern belle. It’s always a fun sort of challenge, trying to out-do last year’s getup, trying to find a clever and cheap way to get with the holiday spirit. But costumes seem to be a bit of a gray area. It’s not always clear what is and what isn’t funny, what is and what isn’t offensive.

That collection of princesses I mentioned included Mulan, the costume for which required a trip to Sephora for white face powder to create the “geisha” effect. I don’t begrudge my mother for allowing seven year old me to be my princess of choice, but wisdom comes with age, and embarrassment comes with wisdom, and I know now that I won’t be being Mulan for Halloween any time soon. At least, I won’t be using white foundation to supplement the clothes.

Millennials are often ridiculed for being overly politically correct and for lacking a funny bone. But humor should not be derived from discrimination. Identity is not something that can be stripped off like clothing, and those who are part of an oppressed culture cannot simply shed it on November first.

Culture is not a costume. It is not a joke, or a punchline, or something to “get over” because “it’s funny.” Culture is culture, and it’s exclusively those who are a part of it. Prejudices that are perpetuated by costumes will remain long after the masks come off.

The reason why it’s not “all in good fun” and not “just a joke” is this: the struggles of others in less privileged positions should not be mocked. A culture or community’s history, and the systemic discrimination that accompanies it, is not to be trivialized. There is no honor in dressing up as a caricatured version of a sacred being or important leader and in exploiting tradition. There is only racism. Identity cannot be put on and taken off with the same nonchalance as a tee shirt.

A holiday does not warrant the sexualization of minorities. Some women cannot shirk off the fetishization of their cultural identity like another can the costume they brought home in a plastic bag. Japanese women have to live with the geisha stereotype all days of the year, as Roma women do “gypsy” costumes and Native American women do “Pocahontas” and “Tiger Lily.”

There are ways to be creative and clever without being offensive.
Halloween is about imagination and wit and cringe-worthy yet respected puns. A costume does not have to mock or appropriate another culture, or utilize black, brown, or any other face in order to deliver the punchline. Generally in the United States, a person in a more privileged inborn position can get away with wearing something that a person of color may be bothered or even harassed for wearing. If this is the case with a costume, it may be good to err on the side of caution and avoid it.

There’s a reason mythical creatures are so popular around this time– fairy, zombie, and vampire costumes adorned with glitter and fake blood aren’t going to offend anyone. There’s a good chance you won’t encounter a mermaid in the streets asking you why you thought it appropriate to paint fish scales on your face. Fantasy is fantasy.
You can dress up as a celebrity or character without imitating their race. You can make a great joke without degrading someone in the process. Be imaginative– stray from the cliches that the Halloween store that pops up on Sherman every year feeds us. I am not Japanese, and therefore I do not have to experience the discrimination that Japanese women (and other women of color) experience– and that is why I will not be Mulan for Halloween this year. I will not break out the white foundation because I will not perpetuate a stereotype for my own amusement one day out of the year.

Appreciating and respecting culture is best done by talking to those who are part of it, by learning directly from them what is and isn’t appropriate. This particular day of the year isn’t the best time to take a risk and experiment with it. Before buying that costume, maybe talk to a friend, or do some research on the cultural significance of a certain piece of clothing, or a bindi or headdress. Halloween is supposed to be fun, but it’s supposed to be fun for everyone, including marginalized groups.