What Not to Wear: College Halloween Edition
Coming up with a badass Halloween costume can be hard, but avoiding cultural appropriation is simple.
By Amelia Williams, City College of San Francisco
It’s New York Fashion week right now, or it was, at the time of this writing, and everyone is losing their shit over outerwear innovations and the same rehashing of leather, velvet and oxblood that crop up every year.
There was one collection that left me aghast though, and not in a good way. It was Marc Jacobs and the repugnant, distasteful faux dreadlocks he slapped on all his models’ heads. Um, what? We were rooting for you, we were all rooting for you, Marc!
As a designer who has featured many more women of color in his campaigns than the average casting director, it’s more disappointing than shocking that Jacobs would resort to the cheap visual impact of dreadlocks on non-black models. It’s caricature, not couture.
Coincidentally, Jacobs also reminded me of the impending national holiday for the casual racist: Halloween. While I can’t stop the new Marc Jacobs line from being an ignorant mess, I can try to keep any readers from getting egged at the frat party for blackface. Here are three easy tips for ensuring your Halloween costume is appropriation-free.
1. Consider Your Social Position
I know a lot of my non-white friends grew up exposed to a disproportionate dose of white princesses, white superheroes and white media. No one is stopping any non-white girl from dressing up as Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” or Elsa from “Frozen,” but consider the reverse. As a white girl, it doesn’t make sense for me to dress up like Serena Williams or Beyonce, even though I admire them a lot. There are thousands upon thousands of white characters or icons I could parade as that won’t take away from any other race or community.
Even though I might love Kanye West (which, eh), I would never attend a Kanye West-themed frat party and make caricatures out of black American culture, as was done at UCLA last fall. The definition of racism is not rigid; everyone is going to have their own relationship with it to varying degrees, but there is no justification for the mockery of another race’s appearance or culture.
Solange Knowles recently published an account on social media about attending a concert where she and her black family were only a sliver of non-white concertgoers. Even for Knowles, the scrutiny toward black people and other PoC in predominantly white spaces is still very real, and very uncomfortable.
This uneasiness is reinforced by things like racist Halloween costumes: Tiny, not necessarily violent decisions that undermine other peoples’ humanity. Consider how you would feel if, as a minority, others dressed up to resemble you on a day centered around gawking at the grotesque? What exactly is “funny” about wearing an afro or a yarmulke or a kimono to a party? That you would be something so foreign and different than yourself? Though subtle, such implications only serve to further distance people.
2. Consult the Literature
Speaking of racist frat parties, did anyone see “Dear White People” when it came out? “Dear White People,” already equipped with an evocative name, is a film that centers on a racist frat party thrown at a liberal arts college. In it, characters of various races give their opinions on the issue, and the feedback ranges from protest, to dismay, to endorsement. When I watched the film, I felt pretty depressed by the end, especially considering it was born out of reality.
Racist parties are not limited to college campuses either. Just two years ago, police in a Parisian suburb threw a party too disturbing for words, so here’s a link. Coming from a country that polices its citizens’ religious dress, the costumes aren’t ironic, they’re inflammatory.
Also check all the post-Halloween issues of “People” magazine: Who is on the Hot list and who is on the Not list? Julianne Hough of “Dancing with the Stars” dressed up as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” from “Orange is the New Black” a couple years ago, with bantu knots and a darkened face, and was rightfully shamed for it. On the other hand, Colton Haynes, aka Jackson from Teen Wolf aka Kanye West aka Gandhi, has worn blackface multiple times and continues to be cast on network shows.
An argument a lot of people make is that it’s “appreciation, not appropriation,” a defense Marc Jacobs used when he received criticism for the dreadlocks in his show. Cultural appropriation is an academic term with a library of examples and studies on its impact on various cultures. It is not an excuse to belittle people, but to educate them on the impacts of colonialism, assimilation and cultural theft.
3. Call Out Your Friends
You know how people who are not necessarily criminals can be charged as accessories to a crime?
If you allow a friend to wear an offensive costume, consider yourself an accessory to insensitivity.
If you were able to find a badass costume that didn’t offend people, why couldn’t they? The same principle applies. Your friends are a reflection of you. Remember last season on the “Real World” when Ceejai fought Jenna because of how Jenna was reacting to her friend’s racism? Jenna got popped. If that doesn’t ring a bell, watch it here.
Deconstructing centuries of racism isn’t going to just happen, and it’s going to happen even slower if people don’t speak up. Plus, considering all the iPhones and social media out on the prowl, your friend’s costume isn’t going to be the hit of the party, it’s going to get them vilified on social media and become a trending topic for how not to dress. Do them and yourself a favor: If you think it’s offensive, don’t wear it.