Culture as a costume

STARS campaign simplifies the issue of racist Halloween costumes.

Leah Lancaster

Halloween, to most college students, is a day of enclosed anarchy. Donned in various costumes ranging from sexy ninja turtles to human-sized Tetris pieces, hoards of us hit the streets every October with the sole purpose of engaging in all-out drunken debauchery. Uninhibited celebration is what Halloween represents to the modern college student. We like to believe it is the one day we can be whatever we want without judgment from others.

This freewheeling concept of Halloween and its costumes was called into question last year by a small group of students at Ohio University. Sarah Williams, the president of Students Teaching about Racism in Society, saw students in blackface at a Halloween party and decided to do something about it. Williams and nine other students went on to create a poster campaign called “We’re a culture, not a costume.” Each poster displayed a person of a particular culture holding up a photograph of a corresponding stereotypical costume, such as a geisha, gangster rapper or terrorist. “This is not who I am, and this is not okay,” was printed in bold letters underneath the campaign’s title.       The posters proceeded to go viral on Tumblr and Facebook, inciting a heated debate on whether racially stereotypical costumes were fun and harmless or racist and stigmatizing. While many online commentators agreed with the campaign’s message, a large number were incredulous that people could be such “oversensitive crybabies.” Halloween, to them, was a harmless holiday. Dressing up as a Native American warrior, a geisha or a gangster rapper did not in any way make them racist. Ironically, Williams herself was accused of being racist for only depicting white people in the costumes she deemed offensive.

Nevertheless, the “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign has generated a new set of posters for this year. This time, “You wear the costume for one night, I wear the stigma for life,” is under the headline along with similar pictures of students of color — and one white guy — next to depictions of stereotypes like the Asian nerd, the African tribal woman and the Redneck hick. Hampshire College has joined the cause by creating a Halloween checklist titled “Is your costume racist?” that is being heavily circulated on the Internet. With Oct. 31 on the horizon, attitudes about costumes and their consequences continue to be conflicted.

While I agree that certain Halloween costumes reinforce stereotypes, the STARS campaign oversimplifies the problem. It implies that all geisha, Indian and gangster rapper costumes are racist and that the people who wear them are racist as well. It does not differentiate between a person who wears a silk bathrobe as a geisha costume and a person who wears a rubber Asian mask while speaking in an exaggerated accent. It implies that a child who wears an afro wig with a ’70s-inspired hippie costume is in the same vein as a person who wears blackface.

On Halloween, there are always people who take it too far. The holiday itself is linked with an “anything goes” attitude. Since it is not sponsored through an institution like a university, it is impossible to police the personal choices people make when it comes to their costumes. I do not think “ethnic” costumes are harmless; there is nothing in existence that is completely “innocent” in the eyes of everyone. Nor do I believe that supporters of the STARS campaign are “oversensitive crybabies.” STARS has indeed opened up the floodgates to a conversation that needs to be had about the implications of “ethnic” costumes, but the conversation is limited because it’s sending a prescriptive message instead of posing a set of questions we need to consider. Most Halloween costumes reinforce stereotypes, be it about women in general — maids, schoolgirls, Barbies, angels — or Asians, African-Americans or Native Americans. These costumes are so ingrained in the modern Halloween tradition that they are inseparable from each other. Though certain costumes are without question more offensive and racially charged than others — terrorists, illegal aliens, blackface or chinamen — the majority of people use Halloween to play on stereotypes, not as a direct attack against people of color. What should be asked is what Halloween means to us now. Certainly it has come a long way from its origins as a Celtic harvest festival. How and why is it now a day that celebrates everything taboo and stereotypical? Where should the line be drawn separating kitschy from downright insulting? There is a difference between a person who buys a pair of moccasins and feather earrings to be trendy and a person who dresses in a “Pocahottie” costume. Insinuating that both of these actions have the same consequences is absurd, and neglects the complexities of the issue. It is unfair to make the generalization that the majority of people who dress up are inseparable from the small handful of racist extremists that purposefully use their costumes to hurt others.

Suggesting that stereotypical costumes should be avoided altogether would protest against a large component of Halloween itself. Far from a trivial holiday, it is a celebration that inadvertently exposes the trends and fallacies within pop culture and society at large. It is this phenomena that needs examination, not the costumes themselves.