The week of October 26, 2014

How to pick out a Halloween costume that won’t get you punched in the face

By Nico Lang

For gays, goths, and girls who want an excuse to wear as little clothing as possible without being slut-shamed, Halloween is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the one day a year that you get to be completely yourself or dress up as someone else for a night, whether that’s Paula Deen, Sherlock Holmes, or Lush Rimbaugh, a Republican-themed drag queen costume I just made up.

But as each year’s festivities remind us, All Hallows Eve is also the most offensive time of the year. With the spread of Ebola, costumes making light of the disease devastating West Africa have gone viral, and The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco recently got a jump on racism by dressing up in a Pocahontas outfit.

Like every other day of the year, there are a million ways to be racist on Halloween, so before you end up as part of a BuzzFeed post on what not to wear on your favorite holiday, here are some questions you may want to ask before you walk outside.

1) “Is that blackface really necessary?”

Last Halloween, Dancing with the Stars’ Julianne Hough raised eyebrows by dressing up as Crazy Eyes (a.k.a. Suzanne) from Orange Is the New Black. It’s not only an inappropriate choice, given the character’s status as an incarcerated woman of color with a history of mental illness, but completely unnecessary. Does blackface add anything at all to the costume, other than shock value? If you’re a fan of the show, it’s already obvious (from Hough’s iconic hairstyle and facial cues) who the actress is supposed to be. What, then, is the point?

Hough explained that her actions were motivated by a love for the character, but to really pay tribute to Suzanne, the better thing to do would be to understand the history of blackface, especially the practice’s relationship to slavery.

As Mark Sawyer explained in a post for CNN, “Blackface is one of the most pernicious and painful stereotypes about people of African descent.” Sawyer wrote. “Whether it is the original white ‘Amos and Andy’ or white fraternity/sorority girls and boys, blackface is always about mocking black skin and presenting stereotypical black behavior. Minstrels always clown around, sing and dance and otherwise dehumanize the individuals they represent.” As Sawyer reminds us, it’s hard to pay tribute to someone if you’re reaffirming the very reasons for their marginalization.

2) “What do my friends think?”

Your friends are the people you rely on to cut through the bull and tell you if your hair has gone flat or you put on too much makeup. If you’re working on putting together a costume for All Hallows Eve, it might be helpful to consult them and ask for their most honest, brutal opinion. As Mikki Kendall explained in a post for Bustle, it might save you from some bad decisions. “And that one friend that who tells you when your great idea is terrible?” Kendall wrote. “Listen to them. They’re most likely right. If one person in your life can see an idea as being offensive, chances are, there are a lot of people out there who would agree with them.”

Kendall’s point is particularly well-taken in the age of social media, when one photo of your sexy geisha costume can get posted to Instagram and go viral within the hour. If your friends think you look silly and racist, the people who know you and love you, what will Tumblr or Gawker think of your get up?

Although Kendall is right that there’s “nothing wrong with erring on the side of being respectful and conscientious,” Halloween revelers would do well to remember that what happens on social media stays on social media, forever, and that can have painful real-life consequences. Remember the PR executive, Justine Sacco, who tweeted an AIDS joke before boarding a flight to Africa? Not only did she become a worldwide trending topic within the day, but she landed without a job. If using Facebook at work is frowned upon, your bosses are unlikely to approve of seeing your Boston Marathon costume splashed all over the Internet.

3) “Is there an entire social media campaign dedicated to explaining why my costume is not OK?

If you’re wearing a sexy Native American princess costume, a sexy Day of the Dead outfit, or a sexy burqa, the answer is “Yes.” “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” has been working to spread awareness about cultural appropriation on Halloween, helping to get people to think critically about the messages their “fun outfit” sends to the culture they’re representing. Blackface parties have long been an epidemic among college campuses, as many students don’t seem to understand why celebrating black culture with racist caricature might be hurtful.

Luckily, Everyday Feminism’s Kat Lazo is here to explain. “Perhaps unlike yourself, you don’t have to live with the stereotypes and stigmas associated with that ‘costume,’” Lazo wrote. “Because you can take it off. But for many people, it’s not just a costume. It’s their everyday lives. For example, you can wear an Illegal Alien costume, but you’ll never have to go through the emotional journey of the 11.7 million undocumented (not illegal) individuals in the United States. Your costume is making light of the difficult lifestyle and journey of undocumented immigrants.”

When representing a culture, it’s a good idea to take a moment to think about the people that costume represents and what they might think of it, especially if you do not belong to that group of people. Would someone in West Africa enjoy your sexy Ebola costume? What would Trayvon Martin’s mother think about dressing up as her son for Halloween? If you have to ask yourself these questions, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

4) Am I making light of a devastating national tragedy?

When I was in college, it became oddly chic to celebrate the anniversary of 9/11 with terrorist parties, in which an attendee would honor the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died in that day by dressing as their favorite Islamic extremist. As far as offensive parties go, these were pretty much a problematic Hail Mary: pissing off Muslims, 9/11 survivors, and just about any feeling, non-sociopathic person who was alive to see footage of the Twin Towers looped on America’s televisions.

There’s something to be said for using humor to deal with trauma, but if you’re dressing as a “Burning Tower” for Halloween, are you really helping remember the fallen, or are you suggesting that the 2,998 deaths are less important than your right to act like a jerk for one special evening? In the same vein, the Holocaust might not seem like a pressing issue to a non-Jewish 20-something whose only education on Nazi work camps was Anne Frank and The Reader, but the legacies of anti-Semitism are very real, even almost 80 years later. Your Hitler costume might not seem that clever to the campus Hillels that get routinely vandalized.

Adolf Hitler might be dead, but the systemic prejudice he represents is very much alive.

5) Why is my costume funny?

If you’ve made it through these last four questions and you’re still thinking about dressing up like Michael Brown for Halloween, you clearly already know that your outfit is offensive, and you’re likely still doing it for one of a couple reasons:

  1. You think it’s funny.
  2. You asked your black friend, and he thinks it’s funny, too.
  3.  You aren’t going to let some liberal, hopelessly political correct Internet person rain on your parade on Halloween.
  4. If we all ignored posts like this and learned to have a little fun, the world would be a better place.
  5. Stop taking everything so seriously.

However, the problem is that these issues are serious, because that definition of “making the world a better place” by offending everyone means creating a culture where mocking the marginalized is the norm. As Lindy West explained in a post for Jezebel, being an “equal opportunity offender” doesn’t hold up in an inherently unequal society. “This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an ‘equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy,” West argued. “When did ‘not censoring yourself’ become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks. In a way, comedy is censoring yourself—comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh.”

It’s not enough to make people laugh. It’s also being smart enough to recognize what that laughter means. If you want to really make the world a better place, help create a culture where everyone can laugh along with you by putting the blackface and the bindi away.

Now that we’re friends, I can tell you that it didn’t look that good on you anyway.


Illustration by Max Fleishman