An Appropriate Halloween

by Kalie Marsicano | 10/30/14 7:34pm

If there’s one lesson “Mean Girls” taught me, it’s how to do Halloween like a champ — just add animal ears. This rule of thumb has brought me consistent success (recent hits include “sexy cat” and “sexy Mickey Mouse from ‘Fantasia’”) but my overwhelming lack of creativity just doesn’t do it for everyone, and I get that. On Halloween, we dress to scare, amuse and impress, sometimes all at once, and the rules that dictate our daily attire disappear.

For me, that means throwing in a furry-eared headband, but for many others, it represents a chance to assume a totally new identity. But that’s exactly why we have to be careful when scouring our closets on Halloween, and make sure to get creative without appropriating another culture.

“I think that Halloween can be a positive time for people to wear things that maybe they wouldn’t be comfortable wearing other times, and that’s fine — I’m all about freedom of self-expression,” Annie Fagan ’15 said.

But, she added, the holiday has become “extremely commercialized, sexualized and culturally appropriative.”

On Halloween, Fagan commented, traditional clothing takes on a different, usually more sexual, meaning that is completely separate from the original context in which the clothing is worn. Think “Indian Princess Costume,” “Asian Persuasion Costume” and “Fiesta Mexican Costume,” for starters.

If the titles of these blatantly racist getups aren’t enough, let’s consider what wearing one signifies. Is it funny? Sexy? Both? In any case, adopting (and often misusing) the traditional garb of another culture, especially one that has faced historic oppression, is not the way to go.

“To be able to dress up as a particular group for a day, and then not have any association to the baggage that comes with the particular culture or the particular people, and not having to live with the discrimination [is problematic],” Bennie Niles ’15 said.

Costumes using ethnic concepts are inappropriate, he said, because they reflect popular stereotypes and generalize or distort elements of the cultures they portray. For example, most Native American cultures do not use headdresses, and especially not the way Halloween costumes imply, Corinne Kasper ’17 said. Kasper, who comes from the Great Lakes region, has a different religion and distinct traditions that differ substantially from the inaccurate “Poca-hotties” often encountered on Halloween.

“When I see someone dressed up in an Indian costume,” Preston Wells ’15 said. “It’s like they’re trying to be like me, they’re trying to be an Indian, when they don’t know anything about it. They think it’s all fun and games, when it’s not all fun and games to be Indian at times. It’s hard.”

Such costumes misunderstand and generalize the peoples they take from, turning one group’s traditions and heritage into another’s entertainment. But it get’s worse — as Wells explained, these outfits can also make light of very real issues.

“Oftentimes, Indian costumes or Native American costumes are very ‘slutty’ which is really problematic because one in three Native American women are raped or sexually assaulted,” Wells said.

Seeing these costumes, he added, forces him to think of his mom and sister back home, and the real dangers they face because of their identity.

So, if the costume mimics a people, culture or race that isn’t your own, the answer is definitely no, but what about historical cultural costumes? Kasper argued that as long as the costume portrays a people that are no longer around, like Vikings, it’s not offensive to wear.

But for Christian Ledesma ’16, times are getting a bit “too PC.” The way he sees it, as long as you’re trying to authentically replicate another culture, rather than playing on negative stereotypes, the costume is probably acceptable.

“Dressing up as an ‘illegal alien,’ or as a ‘tequila bandit’ — that’s blatantly racist,” Ledesma said. “But other stuff, like dressing up as a ‘matador’ or a ‘mariachi member,’ that’s not racist.”

Ledesma is not alone in this sentiment — other college publications such as The Dartmouth Review and Dartblog both argued that the ambiguous nature and the difficulty of defining cultural appropriation makes navigating the Halloween costume waters challenging.

Both pieces said students should exercise common sense and choose a costume not intended to offend, instead of focusing on being politically correct.

In that case, where do we draw the line?

“If you’re trying to decide what to wear on Halloween, anything that is tied to a culture, a language, a country, a people or an identity that is maybe not your own, you should probably think very carefully about that,” Fagan said.

As Niles put it, if you have to take a moment to process whether or not a costume is problematic, it’s best not to wear it.

So I think we’re definitely all clear on what not to wear on Halloween. As it turns out, the rest of the student body seems to be with us, because most of the people I spoke to hadn’t encountered any culturally appropriative costumes firsthand at Dartmouth. Even so, the issue definitely exists on campus, and it’s our responsibility to address it.

“One time, I guess it was Halloween, and I walked by Collis, and I saw a girl in an Indian costume with feathers,” Wells said. “We actually confronted her, and she said that she was going to go change and that she didn’t know that what she was wearing was offensive.”

It might feel like a party foul, but calling someone out in these situations is key. It’s an uncomfortable moment for the offender, but it’s just as hard for the individuals whose culture has been appropriated to see their lived experience made into something funny, sexy or just plain inaccurate.

“If you have the feeling that someone’s costume is offensive, don’t just ignore it,” Ellen Plane ’15 said. “Mention it to them. Even if it’s hard, it’s the right thing to do.”

Whether you’re in it for the candy, the pumpkin carving or the haunted houses, Halloween can and should be a day to enjoy.

There are tons of options to look hot, silly and spooky without insulting others, so let’s take it as a challenge to get inventive and promote social awareness. Maybe I’ll even ditch the animal ears this time.