Halloween costumes disregard cultural meaning behind the mask

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Walking into Party City on the first day of October, I could barely contain my excitement. There were 30 days until Halloween. 30 days to decorate, 30 days to buy candy, and most importantly, 30 days to find a costume.

Passing through the aisles of plastic pumpkins and cackling skeletons, I made it my mission to find one. As I reached the costume aisle, however, I was puzzled with what I saw. Classic characters such as Supergirl and Darth Vader were displayed alongside costumes like “Hey Amigo Mexican” and “Native American Princess.”

All that these costumes do is feed on the cultural stereotypes that have come to dominate society. They don’t represent entire cultures, they simply mock them.

Do all Mexican people have moustaches and wear sombreros? No. Does every Native American have moccasins and a headdress sitting their closet? Certainly not.

These cultural costumes are not funny or cute. They promote racial stereotypes, treating minorities as nothing more than a costume to be gawked at. It’s no wonder many  people from these cultures find it offensive to see children prancing around in degrading outfits that mock their heritage. Since their cultures have been mistreated for decades by privileged whites, many of whom now wear these costumes instead of advocating for minorities, the retaliation caused by this disrespect is only natural.

Whether it be Disney angering the Polynesian community with a costume from Moana that allows children to wear Maui’s brown skin, or celebrities like Karlie Kloss and Katy Perry supporting the hypersexualization of Japanese women by dressing up as geishas, this misappropriation condones stereotypical views, often at the expense of cultural values and respect, addinhg to modern day racism.

Headdresses, for instance, are a commonly worn Halloween accessory, a fact that tends to upset Native Americans. In their culture, headdresses are reserved for the elders, who have worked hard throughout their lives to earn their feathers. People wearing fake headdresses to parties undermines their importance to the culture.

This issue resurfaces year after year as Halloween approaches, and is quickly forgotten by the time Christmas rolls around. Thanks to the annual “Top ten offensive Halloween costumes” articles pouring in from websites like Buzzfeed, many people are aware that certain costumes are controversial. Some trick-or-treaters stay away from them so as to avoid the possibility of offending someone. But still, many don’t. They continue to wear these costumes because they don’t fully understand why they are offensive in the first place.

Many people pick out their costume simply because they like the way it looks. They use Halloween as an excuse to do sugar skull makeup, unaware that Day of the Dead is a  Hispanic holiday of remembrance, or try on a bindi without realizing their importance to South Asian culture. The people fail to take into account how they are contributing to the degrading stigmas that surround the very race that they’re trying to emulate.

For example blackface, when people paint their skin black, has been a huge problem for years. Every year scathing news reports  have criticised celebrities for contributing to this racism and the Black Lives Matter movement has impacted many. Due to this exposure and the obvious misappropriation that blackface presents, while blackface is definitely still a problem, fewer people have dared to incorporate it into their costumes.

Educating others about these societal injustices is important. While not everyone is willing to listen, it just takes the few who are. For all we know, some offensive costume-wearers may even be appalled with their choices once they learn why those choices could be hurtful.  There have been several successful attempts to do just that, a widely publicised one being the “We’re a Culture not a Costume” campaign organized by members of the Students Teaching About Racism in Society club at Ohio University. Students created posters depicting insensitive costumes along with people from the cultures they are intended to portray. Each is titled with a powerful statement, such as “This is not who I am, and this is not okay” and “My fight is not your costume,” allowing their message to resonate with the public and raise awareness.

Being part of a group isn’t the only effective way to teach others, a single voice can be just as impactful.

Simply speaking up when you notice wrongdoings is huge. Individuals educating others, as opposed to larger groups, may even get more people to listen as one-on-one conversations feel more natural and less like a lecture.

Sadly, there are always the few who don’t want to listen. Those who have waltzed through life with privileges that many minorities don’t get. Those who don’t know what it’s like to live surrounded by the stigmas that many choose to dress up in. Those who claim that using Halloween as a time to educate others about misappropriation is sucking the fun out of the holiday. But if not now, then when?

Simply making an effort to teach someone about these wrongdoings is meaningful—even if they don’t listen. It may not sway them instantly, but once left alone with their conscience, they may just fold.

While these efforts have definitely made an impact, they haven’t made a noticeable change. According to a study conducted by the National Retail Federation, about 65 percent of trick-or-treaters look online or in a physical store for costume inspiration. Since retail stores, that still sell these insensitive costumes, have influence through both of these platforms, they continue to teach children that entire cultures can be boiled down to a single outfit.

These stores are going to continue selling discriminatory costumes as long as the public keeps buying them – it makes the most financial sense. The entire existence of these costumes in falls upon our shoulders just as heavily, if not more, than on the retailers’. If we were to stop buying these costumes, stores will have no reason to keep selling them, as they would no longer be profiting.

Of course, someone could just as easily go home and put together a racist costume, but if it’s not publicised in commercials and store fronts, if it’s not treated as acceptable by society, then people will to be less inclined to dress up in them. The more we speak up about injustices and educate others, the more we will be heard.

While a popular part of Halloween is taking on a new persona, it is important to be mindful and respectful of the diversity around us.