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Having a Fun, Not Racist Halloween

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Northwestern chapter.

It’s finally time for Halloween! I’m excited, are you? One of the best parts of this Halloween (besides terrifying people in my horrifying mask) is going to be seeing how creative the people of Chicago will get with their costumes. I’m fully ready to go into the city and see what craziness people have come up with this year. One thing I’m not excited for, though, is the racist costumes I’m sure to see.

There’s almost too much to say when it comes to that fine line between having fun on Halloween and being offensive on Halloween. I’ll start with the idea of privilege.
Privilege is “a special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste” according to The Free Dictionary. We’re all privileged for different reasons; for example, I’m privileged because I’m straight and I’m getting an excellent education. Certain things in life will come easier to me because of these things, and I accept and try to acknowledge that.  The most basic example of this is that men have privilege over women. Check out more about that here.

For me, the main issue with racist Halloween costumes is that people are hanging up their privilege for a night and then perpetuating stereotypes about marginalized communities to which they don’t belong. Being able to do that is a privilege in and of itself, and it’s one that comes at the detriment of people that don’t have the same opportunity. Having a few crazy nights in these outfits, spilling beer all over them, then relegating them to the back of your closet is an act of privilege that only helps to create further divisions and prejudices between groups of people.
You may be thinking, “Uh, Zahra? Calm down. It’s not that serious.” Oh, but it is.
If you walk around with shoe polish on your skin for Halloween, with tattoos drawn on in permanent marker and spitting out some rap lyrics, you can take all of that off at the end of the night. I can’t hop out of my skin and just start living a life without constantly having my worth as a person questioned. If your privilege means that on a daily basis, you don’t have to deal with men fetishizing your darkness while also throwing the n-word around, you may want to rethink your costume.

When you put on a cheaply-made feather headdress, some fringed clothing, and carry a dream catcher, you’re not thinking about the fact that the sexualization of an entire group of people is the only impression lots of other people will ever get of a Native American. You’re probably also not thinking about the fact that a lot of these pieces are sacred and have religious meaning, or that by buying these from huge corporations you’re contributing to the same system that screwed Native Americans over in the first place. Talk about insulting. The high rates of rape and sexual assault among Native American women makes this even less cool. If your privilege means that on a daily basis, being a Native American woman doesn’t come with a whole host of dangerous issues, you may want to rethink your costume.
When you buy a “Geisha” costume and tape your eyes, you don’t recognize that the dragon on the costume actually symbolizes Chinese culture and that there is a proper way to wear a Geisha costume, which isn’t how you’ll wear it. If your privilege means that on a daily basis, you don’t have men asking you what you are (seems they’re rarely satisfied with the answer “human…”) or extolling the virtues of submissive Asian women, you may want to rethink your costume.
Of course, these are only a few examples. That’s the great thing about people, they’re always ready and willing to be offensive in more ways than you could possibly list!
I want to make it clear that going as a specific person of another race can be done excellently. On the other hand, drawing from the most prevalent stereotypes of a group of people then declaring yourself a generic black person, or Asian, or Latino is just mocking that same group. It’s ignoring that every race, culture, and ethnicity is so widely, beautifully varied that one simple costume couldn’t possibly be representative of a whole group.
Also, if your costume is awesome enough, you will not need to paint your skin/tape your eyes/speak in an offensive imitation of an accent in order to be recognized. I promise you that.
There is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Do your research. It’s not that hard and goes a long way in ensuring that you won’t come off as an asshole. Let’s say you want to dress up as a Native American. How would you feel if you ran into an actual Native American? Would you feel the need to stutter/bellow belligerently about how you mean no offense? If you approach a cultural Halloween costume from a place of respect and curiosity, with a willingness to do your best to be inoffensive, I see nothing wrong with it.
A quick note about the inevitable “but what about white trash costumes?!” question. The phrase “white trash,” while demeaning to the specific people in question, is prejudicial against other races as well. “White” acts as a qualifier, signaling that white people being trash is out of the ordinary. While definitely in bad taste, a white trash costume has to do with classism, not racism. Classism is also a disgusting form of prejudice, but a white person will not usually have to deal with the stereotypes that come along a white trash costume, whereas that isn’t the case for many other minorities. Either way, steer clear of costumes that make fun of a group of people who have hardships you will never understand.
I get that Halloween is supposed to be a fun time to dress outlandishly. That’s the thing though, being a person of another race or culture isn’t ridiculously outrageous unless a mockery is made of it. Don’t fool yourself into thinking these costumes are homages. They’re parodies. It isn’t ironic. It isn’t funny. It isn’t harmless, and this isn’t me being too politically correct or loving being offended. And just because your black/Asian/whatever friend isn’t horrified (and not the good, Halloween kind of horrified) doesn’t mean it’s right.
Use Halloween as a chance to pass on the typical costumes, be really creative, and go win some costume contests! All of the girls dressed up as “Sexy Squaws,” “Asian Dolls,” and “Baby Mommas” will never even stand a chance.

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Kylie Gilbert


Kylie Gilbert is a senior Journalism major and French minor at Northwestern University. She joined HC as a freshman as a contributing writer and has been campus correspondent since her sophomore year. When she isn't writing, online shopping, or reading fashion magazines, she loves watching The Mindy Project, Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother and everything on Bravo.