Halloween is near. I’m sure a lot of us are thinking about the costume we're going to wear and what other people will dress up as. On November 1, I always enjoy poking around the internet for pictures of the most interesting costumes from around the country. Based on what’s been in the media lately, I anticipate seeing a multitude of Suicide Squad characters, many presidential candidates, a score of mustachioed Ken Bones in impeccable scarlet sweaters, and a veritable legion of Harambes.
You may be wondering, "What about the scary costumes? Isn’t that what Halloween is really about?" I do anticipate that this Halloween will have more than its fair share of zombies and werewolves and spooky skeletons that send shivers down your spine. But I also expect to catch sight of much more terrifying getups: The ones that not only appropriate other cultures but perpetuate and trivialize the racist stereotypes that, whether we prefer to admit it or not, have been endemic to American society for centuries.
We all know the kind: The mustachioed rancheros complete with vibrant ponchos and maracas. The guys with their fair faces colored brown, tinfoil wrapped around their teeth and ludicrously large afro wigs perched on their domes. The girls wearing pleather moccasins, with feathers poking up from behind their heads and their faces painted with all the colors of the wind.
This is a real issue on college campuses. Florida State University recently posted a memo on its website, entreating students to be mindful when selecting their costumes so that they don’t cause “harm and offense to groups of people.” The school is offering 24/7 counseling to students who feel they need it as the result of any costume they see that causes them distress. Students can even report costumes that rankle their sensitivities.
Whether you view FSU’s actions as a step in the right direction or as some kind of censorship complemented by frivolous, debilitating mollycoddling, it does show that the issue of offensive costumes is one being taken seriously.
I wish I were preaching to the choir. I wish there was no need to touch on why dressing up in outfits that caricature the cultures of people groups, who were systematically killed so we could occupy their land, is a little less than appropriate. Nor should anyone have to explain why putting on blackface, which has intrinsically been part and parcel with hideously stereotypical portrayals of black people, is no less terrible even if you’re doing so to look like your favorite singer or athlete. I wish no one had to say that real Japanese people wouldn’t find your geisha costume endearing.
A recent Collegian article proved to me that some students here at Richmond have got it in their heads that this sort of thing is OK. One — who had been involved in our school government, no less — appears to have been so complacent in his approval that he not only donned such a costume but gleefully posed for a photo and let it spread on social media. This unfortunate side of our culture, I believe, is very much alive not only at University of Richmond but the nation as a whole. So, here it is again for the people in the back:
Wearing a costume that parodies another culture's sacred dress is not OK. Darkening your skin and slipping on a dreadlock wig to look like Lil Wayne is not OK. Putting on a kufiya and carrying around a fake bomb for some giggles at a lodge is not OK. The fact that some still have the mindset that it is OK only serves to exhibit the fact that the road to a comprehensively equitable society perhaps is longer than we thought.
If you think I’m nitpicking for things to get indignant about, here’s another way of looking at it: These costumes should not only be avoided because they are pretty, well, racist, but also because they’re kind of dumb and uninspired as far as costumes go. Of all the things you can be on Halloween, you’re picking something so rudimentary as someone from another race? That’s worse than boring. You can do better than that.
It’s safe to say that Halloween costumes are meant to be either creepy, funny or (let’s admit it, we’re all adults here) sexy. When you're prowling Party City or analyzing Amazon search results for the perfect costume, ask yourself: Is pretending to be [insert different race or ethnicity here] inherently sexy, funny or creepy? Well, it’s subjective, of course, but if your answer is “yes,” you should reevaluate.
To paraphrase, if you’re going as someone of a different skin tone for Halloween, and your character isn’t a Na’vi, a Klingon or someone like Superman, you ought to reconsider. No one's culture ought to be recast as a costume.
Contact opinion writer Hunter Moyler at firstname.lastname@example.org