Ah, another year, another chance to “discuss” the “problem” of sexyst, racist costumes! The University of Boulder has given bloggers something to write about by encouraging students to make thoughtful, positive choices about their costumes, and to avoid offensive or racist outfits. That which may be deemed offensive is notoriously fluid and the letter written by CU’s Dean of Students Christina Gonzales has, unsurprisingly, attracted accusations of oversensitivity. The letter suggests avoiding the usual suspects, such as: sexualized stereotypes like geishas and squaws, “Mexican” outfits that so often focus on the sombrero/serape combo, and those that play off poverty, such as “ghetto” or “hillbilly.” Its unique suggestion is to avoid the “cowboy” stereotype, which does not reflect the realities of Western life; I can see how some might think this is a step too far, but there are other people who don’t see the harm in their annual pimps and hos couple’s costume.
In an article on the Huffington Post, Leanne Italie discusses the incidence of blackface this year (Halloween, birthdays, etc), including a woman who decided to show her admiration for actress Uzo Aduba by dressing up as her Orange is the New Black character, Crazy Eyes (aka Suzanne). Although this may be temporary, Aduba’s work is currently obscured by this act of admiration; she has become the object, not the subject.
Even among those who may disagree with the costumes above, there are some who complain that everything will be (mis)construed as racist or knee-jerk offensive. This assigns an essential Thingness to the practice of Halloween as it is performed today, a willful misrememberance of p.c.-free days past, and a belief that tradition or inheritance invalidates claims of wrongdoing. As Jenée Desmond Harris wrote for The Root in 2012 about that year’s crop of ill-contrived costumes:
[C]ostumes that play on stereotypes about African-American criminality, Asian sexuality and Mexican illegality are as predictable a part of the holiday as candy corn and miniature chocolate bars.
She interviewed David Leonard of Washington State University (excerpted in the 2013 version), who asked:
“Why are ‘the other’ and ‘the exotic’ such sources of enjoyment and pleasure” that they’ve become Halloween staples?
What is the role of intention (good or bad) in the choices we make on Halloween, and should we consider each possible reception? What is our responsibility toward other people, and how does it weigh against the perceived right to wear whatever one wants on a commercial holiday? Is wearing certain clothing exercising free speech, and should it be protected? Unlike the spoken word, these costumes can never be defended as off-the-cuff or an unplanned mistake: these costumes take time, even just a few minutes, of considered creation. Someone splashed red paint on a hoodie and called it a joke, another heated up mom’s iron and applied almost enough letters for the punch line. One must have spent a more than a little time in front of a mirror, literally confronting his bad decision face to face, and still deemed it a good idea.
While most people avoid wearing offensive statements in their day-to-day lives, explicit or implied, intentional or accidental, why do some use Halloween as an opportunity to exercise unrestraint in dress? This is a holiday centered around clothing. The hoodie that became a metonym for Trayvon Martin has a complicated history, but it (necessarily) takes a backseat here to accompanying depictions of violence and blackface. Watered-down, seemingly randomly-chosen signifiers of various cultures become the full extent of the outfit, like fuzzy ears and a painted-on nose are sartorial shorthand for “cat” on this night. It’s rare that a Halloween celebrant takes on the persona, speech patterns, and mannerisms associated with the culture, so the appearance (or phrase ironed onto a plain t-shirt) must stand for itself.
Why do you celebrate Halloween? Be safe and thoughtful out there!