The weekend before last I posted the following photo and description on my Instagram feed.
Halloween = my favorite time for over-saturating social media with photos of my kids. For this party Miss is a loose interpretation of a samurai, Mr is Buzz Lightyear.
If you visit my account you’ll see that my loose interpretation of a samurai costume hit some nerves, and cultural appropriation is something I’ve been thinking about ever since.
The podcast http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/category/stuff-mom-never-told-you/ just did an episode on this titled “What Not to Wear on Halloween” and I think it’s a great listen if you’d like to spend some time working through this issue.
This is the conclusion I have come to: It is never appropriate to represent or impersonate a negative or offensive stereotype of a currently-living group with a costume. Additionally, a privileged group should never dress as a member of a group they have oppressed, offended, or reside above in a given area (either presently or in the past). Be culturally sensitive about donning costume inspired by foreign cultures, particularly those your own culture has oppressed or attacked in some way.
If you have enough not to be homeless, you should not be dressing as a homeless person for Halloween. Living without a home is not a joke. If you are healthy, don’t dress up as a cancer patient. Having cancer is not a joke. (If you actually have cancer, feel free to dress up as someone with cancer. Maybe it can be a make lemonade from lemons kind of situation?) “White trash”, illegal alien, blackface. All are offensive. One of the Stuff Your Mom Never Told You hosts pointed out that at the end of the night the Halloween participant gets to go home and take their costume off. They may have been pretending to be a Black, mentally ill, incarcerated character, but after the party is over they get to go back to being a white, wealthy, TV personality. A better homage to Crazy Eyes would be donating some money to a cause that support similar women who need assistance getting back on their feet after incarceration.
I’ve cited some examples that I consider to be very obvious, but there are some I can’t decide on. What if I want to dress as a maid? Maybe the sexy French kind, maybe as someone in regular clothes who carries around a mop and set of rags all night. I think telling someone that they can’t dress as a maid somehow implies something negative about being a maid. But if I picture Paris Hilton dressing as a maid I get a bad taste in my mouth – it feels wrong. Same thing with dressing as an auto mechanic, or Walmart employee, or coal miner. Where is the line between personifying an idea and making a joke out of it?
I think the best approach to choosing a Halloween costume is to think about the person you are representing and decide how you are portraying their personhood. Most importantly, think about how they might feel if you were to encounter them in person. If there is any hesitation on your part, or any possibility of offense on theirs, choose something else. If you don’t know if something is offensive read about it on Wikipedia or ask someone who is well-read. If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you have the means at your disposal to create almost anything you can dream up; unique and creative costumes are the best kind anyway. Leave the flat jokes and hurtful stereotypes to the comedians who aren’t savvy enough to come up with sharp and innovative material.