What are you going to be for Halloween?
It’s a question we ask and answer over and over again at this time of year, whether we will be taking our children trick-or-treating for the first time, or trying to out-do our friends at the annual costume party. And there are many of us that put quite a bit of effort into Halloween costumes – making a child’s costume by hand, spending too much money on a store-bought outfit or wracking our brains to come up with something clever and original that will have people talking until next Halloween.
But this year, a group of students at Ohio University would like us to think about something else when we are planning our Halloween costumes, and have come out with a campaign to help us do just that.
We’re a Culture, Not a Costume is a poster campaign launched by Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS), and has each of several posters featuring students of various cultural backgrounds holding pictures depicting people dressed up in stereotypical and racist garb. In one poster, a woman of Asian descent holds up a picture of somebody dressed as a Geisha. “This is not who I am and this is not OK” the poster proclaims. It’s a strong message, and not surprisingly, the campaign has gone viral, exploding on Facebook and in other social media channels.
And while many of the images are disturbing (the student of Arab descent holding up the poster of somebody dressed as a Sheik-come-suicide bomber is particularly unsettling), I have to admit, I am unsure of where exactly – when it comes to Halloween costumes at least – the line that separates parody and archetype from racism, is drawn.
I would probably not have thought of somebody dressed up as a Geisha as somebody being insensitive to Japanese culture. Why that is, exactly, I’m not sure. Because the misogynistic or enslaving implications of Geisha culture outweigh the racist ones? Because Geisha is no longer widely practiced and therefore already in the realm of parody and history but not stereotype? Because I am too ignorant to fully understand the implication? Like I said, I’m not sure.
There are definitely costumes that should never be worn, for cultural reasons. Dressing up as a Nazi comes to mind as about offensive a costume as you can get, but how many cave-dwelling Osama Bin Ladens do you think there will be at the Legion this year? Anybody with access to some combat fatigues and wig can go as Gadhaffi, and I’m pretty sure he’d get a few good guffaws. Their death count may not have been as high or as swift as Hitler’s, but genocide is genocide and I doubt people need to see any despot’s party tricks.
Does intention or model, I wonder, have any bearing on precisely how racist one should perceive a costume? I would cringe at the site of an ‘Indian Chief’ costume, all headdress and war paint and animal skin pants, but what about the dress and raven-hued hair of the hero princess Pocahontas? I’ve already said that I have an issue with somebody dressed as an Arab sheik (bombs or not), but what about a little girl donning the costume of her beloved Jasmine? Is it ok if Disney does it first?
Last year, I dressed up as one of four sister wives at the inaugural Blissdom Canada Costumes and Karaoke party, something that could have been seen as offensive to a member of the Mormon Church. We knew that was a possibility, but quite frankly, dismissed our uncertainties almost immediately because we felt that parody trumped cultural insensitivity, and we went on to become some of the most widely talked-about masqueraders there.
This year, my group went as Georgian zombies, which should probably have only offended the most die-hard of Jane Austen enthusiasts, but are we now to scrutinize every costume for potential of offense? Perhaps the answer is a resounding yes, but I also wonder about (note – wonder about, not condone) the notion of turning even the most innocent of intentions into cause for alarm. I’m just glad that my own kids’ Halloween costumes are already decided. Hopefully the dragon and Bat Girl won’t get anybody’s ire up.
So what do you think as Halloween draws ever nearer? Is this about cultural sensitivity, or are we just being oversensitive?