by Dani Cooke
Four Octobers ago, in 2013, The University of Colorado Boulder took part in a campaign highlighting the issue of cultural appropriation (and unrestricted racism) in Halloween costumes; the movement drew attention from media outlets across the country. Though the issue of highly insensitive costumes is an oft-familiar one, the Halloween season upon us begs rekindled awareness when choosing a costume. This is no matter of being easily offended or a generation that can’t take a joke: this is an issue of privilege, compassion, and common sense.
I am a white Boulderite writing an article about race for a private school newspaper. It was not until I was about thirteen years old that I began to consider and learn the often painful and hard-to-admit truth that I am not blameless from the contribution to stereotypes, oppression, and white privilege.
But most importantly, this article is not about me.
I have a close friend who grew up in Wisconsin as the only Black student at her school. She tells a story of one Halloween she experienced growing up. “[These guys dressed up] as the KKK one time at school. [They] wore white hoodies and followed me around as a joke… It was disgusting.”
Kath, a Watershed student who self-identifies as mixed race and ¾ Asian, offers her opinions. “[Non-Asian people] pretending to be Asian is not ok. Race-specific elements of culture should not be turned into a costume because it’s demeaning to those who are members of those communities.” Still, she considers the importance of context, recalling numerous weddings she attended in India where wearing traditional Indian dress as a guest is both expected and appreciated. In the eyes of many communities, members of outside cultures appreciating traditional clothing and other culture-specific aspects is appreciated, as most people want to see the identities with which they relate be seen and respected in some way or another.
There are people who love to argue. There are people (like me) who are so stubborn that they hate to admit that they’re wrong, especially if it jeopardizes their self-image as “good people.” The reality is, those in our privileged community hear the term “cultural appropriation” and cringe. But the consideration of such issues is part of a much larger set of truths—the realities that (1) There is no such thing as “reverse racism;” (2) True racism is alive and well in our current society, and it is not without a body count; and (3) There are times when our only job is to listen. We need to admit where we are wrong if we ever want to move forward. No matter how “good” we are, we are a part of this societal push and pull, and guilt is not the answer.
It seems to all boil down to intention and communication. Good intentions alone do not absolve potential offenses—instead, they lead to the kinds of “I’m not racist, but…” excuses that are so famously flimsy. On the other hand, communicating with negative intentions is often ignorant at best and aggressive at worst. If you aren’t sure if your costume is offensive, the chance is that there’s some part of it is harmful. Most of us are insightful enough to know what is okay and what isn’t.
And if you still can’t figure it out? Just ask.
Finally, for your benefit, I have compiled an incomplete list of appropriate Halloween costumes:
- Literally any animal that isn’t a human.
- Your best friend, or your twin sister, because confusing people is fun.
- Fairies and elves and dragons and any creatures from that entire fantastical repertoire.
- Your favorite book/movie character—as long as there is no blackface or other similar modification going on. (You know what works here and what doesn’t. I know you do.)
- One of the classics: a witch, ghost, mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, et cetera.
- A superhero
- Professions without the words “sexy” or “slutty” slapped in front of them.