Trigger Warning: discussion of racial and cultural stereotypes.
BIP has done a pitiful job of focusing on non-white bodies. (It doesn’t help that all of our contributors are white, for one thing.) And this post still won’t do as much about that as I would like, but it’s a start. There’s a topic that I think is really important (and timely) and that would mark a failure on BIP’s part if we didn’t cover it.
Halloween costumes. The often offensive, stereotyped, racist getup that privileged white folks think is cute to put on near the end of October. It reflects the way we see these cultures. It reflects the realities that people experience and the stereotypes that they have to deal with on a daily basis. It sends them messages about their bodies, and they’re definitely not positive messages.
Now, I know our readers are pretty awesome, for the most part, and that they don’t mean to offend anyone. But standing idly by while your friend dons a mustache and sombrero for that Halloween party? It’s not OK. It’s just not OK. And (in the words of others that are much wiser than I am on race issues) I’m going to try to tell you why.
Garb that’s meant to “represent” a whole race doesn’t make any sense unless you play to stereotypes. How would you accurately represent every white person on Earth? It’s that complicated to accurately represent every person of aboriginal heritage or African descent, so it shouldn’t be rocket science for us to realize that it’s offensive to try. Stereotypes are harmful and reduce an entire culture to a few distinctive costume bits, like a headdress and face paint. It reduces the culture to an artifact that can just be used as a placeholder for real, live people who have actual cultural histories and traditions (not to mention individual wants and needs). It treats the cultural group like it doesn’t actually exist anymore, but rather is just there, frozen in time, for your amusement and costume convenience. It’s not real.
But think again: these are real, live people that are watching you stereotype them as you march down the street in your sombrero. They’re being shoved into an archaic, simplistic box so that stereotypes about them can continue to thrive. They’re dealing with the real-life racism that stems from these kinds of stereotypes every day. And by perpetuating these stereotypes, we’re just adding to their struggle. In other words, we’re continuing to oppress groups that already deal with a lot of crap on a daily basis. (Take New York City’s stop-and-frisk initiative, where people are stopped for, I don’t know, simultaneously existing and being a person of colour? It’s really not helping that going out for Halloween as a black “gangsta” is a thing.) If you’ve never thought about it, it may be forgivable, because in our naivete we can do really silly things. But if you still feel like it’s OK, I’m just going to go out on a limb and say you’re either really unwilling to acknowledge your own privilege, or just a really unfeeling person.
Here’s a pretty straightforward example for you: sexing it up on Halloween has become standard for most women. And sexual liberation is awesome–all the time, not just in the context of a costume one day of the year. But how about we don’t do it at the expense of others who are historically much more likely to experience sexual violence? Case in point: this costume and this costume. By sexualizing native women on their behalf, we’re not only perpetuating oppressive attitudes towards them (that is, that native women can be treated as sex objects rather than being in control of their own sexual choices), but we’re also targeting a population that is already much more likely to experience sexual violence. If you’re a sexual assault survivor and you see a highly-sexualized woman walking down the street, claiming to be a representation of a group you identify with, how much more triggering could that possibly get?
There is an entire history of racism and oppression that many groups have faced over time. Everything from the intentional and ongoing assimilation of natives by white people to blackface as a form of entertainment to the association of beards and turbans with terrorism. White people have pretty much always been on top, and so it’s easy for us to be oblivious to this history because we don’t experience it ourselves. But the reality is that digging a little deeper is the least we can do if we want to keep from adding to the oppression of these groups. And for the love of all things good in this world, please don’t argue with people when they tell you, “Your costume is really offensive and triggering to me as a [insert culture in question here] person–can you please not wear that?”
This is only the tip of the iceberg, and from a privileged white girl, no less. So check out Adrienne’s open letter for more on native appropriation, and the whole Black Girl Dangerous blog as a good starting point on issues that affect people of colour. These incredible bloggers know what they’re talking about; I can only try.