Every year, without fail, someone will decide that another person’s culture makes for an excellent Halloween costume. This year was no exception.
The experience of ethnicity and culture cannot be painted on or purchased in a costume store. Belonging to such a group is an experience. Picking up a few shiny plastic trinkets, which often transform their wearer into a vaguely racist caricature, does a disservice to the minority experience. Yes, dressing up as someone else is fun. But when someone purchases a sexy Indian princess costume, they get to sidestep a legacy of sexual humiliation forced on Aboriginals through colonialism and residential schools. Even now, thousands of Aboriginal women go missing or are found murdered yearly. The shiny trappings of other cultures are exciting and sparkly, but belonging to a culture means taking the good with the bad.
Receiving complements on how attractive one looks in a carefully-designed, ethnically-inspired costume is absurd given that those costumes are often subverted and parodied outside of Halloween. The headdresses worn by First Nations people, for example, have been turned into accessories for the mascots of sports teams such as the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and the NFL’s Washington Redskins, even though such headgear is sacred to many tribes.
Borrowing another culture’s aesthetic without respect for its ceremonial purpose is unflattering and inappropriate — native headdresses for example are considered items of great spiritual weight that signify acts of high valour on the battlefield. The appropriation of such an important aspect of Aboriginal warrior tradition for the amusement of Western audiences is cruelly ironic, given the Aboriginal massacres during the 19th-century American expansion.
Not that your average overpriced plastic costume accurately reflects cultural garb. More often than not, they’re a commodified and exoticized version of reality — this is particularly noticeable in geisha and Southeast Asian costumes.
It is good to celebrate the cultural diversity that Canada offers. However, reducing sacred objects and clothing of other cultures to inaccurate fashion statements while getting plastered hardly fits that bill.
Blackface is another common offender, despite the fact that it was literally created to dehumanize black people as part of racist minstrel shows that were immensely popular across the U.S. and Europe during and for some time after slavery. This racist caricature still makes an appearance every Halloween.
Other perennial offenders include Mexicans, sexy Arabs and gypsies, which itself is an offensive term for nomadic Eastern European peoples. They might seem funny, but these costumes’ humour is based off nothing more than the reduction of cultural differences into stereotypes.
Racial Halloween costumes perpetuate stereotypes and historical inaccuracies and misinformation. Consider how these stereotypes oppress and actively harm the people whose cultures Canada has committed to respecting.
A sexy Arab is a good way to show off one’s toned stomach, until we recall thousands of Muslim women in Quebec who have been accused of being un-Canadian for expressing their perception of religious modesty. A gypsy outfit might seem slick until one hears about the violent attacks on Romani school children.
Unlike you, at the end of the night, many of these people can’t throw away their clothes or wash face paint down the drain and return to their routines. Those who belong to a marginalized group might have a connection to cultural items that seem exotic to the mainstream, but remember that histories of suffering and hatred have been packaged with them.