Appropriate Appropriation:
Racism and Halloween

By Nikki San Pedro

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Stepping beyond the traditional spookiness, it is a day for people to be exceptionally slutty, weird, stereotypical, topical, funny, historically accurate, and especially creative. I am fascinated at how people perform alternate identities for the occasion.

My alternate Halloween identity this year is Beyonce from the 2014 VMAs. I already feel like I share the inner fierceness of Queen Bey. This is my chance to look like the mortal goddess: the metallic mosaic bodysuit, fishnet stockings, and boots that put her on a higher pedestal all reflect that fierceness. My roommate told me I would have to go blonde to really commit to the persona. No problem. I will spray-dye my black hair blonde, which will also serve to hold waves similar to Beyonce’s blowout in my otherwise straighter hair. So if I’m going that far to replicate Beyonce’s image via her attire and her hair, what about the rest? Her skin color?

My complexion is on the light tan side, it can get considerably darker/browner depending on how much time I spend in the sun. Given the shorter days and decreased opportunities for sun time, my skin is a few shades lighter than Beyonce, and I am considering wearing bronzer in order to capture her radiant brown skin. I personally don’t see anything wrong with this. When I was Snooki a few years ago, I caked on the unnaturally orange bronzer to emulate Snooki’s artificially darkened skin. Yet, while sharing this idea with different groups of friends, some expressed apprehension related to the issue of blackface and racism.

Racism continues to be a challenging concept, at least for me, when it comes to nailing down a precise definition because I hear the term uttered so casually to refer to things that I don’t associate with racism. The Anti-Defamation League defines racism as “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. Wikipedia offers, “Racism consists of both prejudice and discrimination based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. It often takes the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems that consider different races to be ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities.” The key term that stands out for me is “inherently superior”.

Given our contemporary knowledge of the traditional practice of blackface in 19th century American theater, wherein white actors used burnt cork or greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin, exaggerate their lips and wear wooly wigs in order to represent a black person in limited [subordinate] roles in the 1800s, I can easily see that blackface is racist. Racial generalizations could be avoided and more authentic portrayals could be achieved if a black person wrote and performed their own identities. And this did exist. After emancipation in 1865, African American performers appropriated minstrelsy and performed in blackface, seeing it as a vehicle to create a more humanizing element in their portrayal of blacks. Not only was the black minstrel poking fun at himself, he shone a spotlight at the white man’s typically oversimplified, reductive performance. So, blackface in this instance–satire– is not racist, right?

Simply put, blackface and minstrelsy used as a practice by white people to perpetuate white superiority over blacks in the 19th century is racist. Black people performing in blackface to represent their culture in their own ways and satirize previous stereotypes, not racist.

So let’s get back to my costume. I am neither a white person trying to stereotype a whole culture of black people, nor am I a black person celebrating my own culture. I am a light to medium brown-skinned individual trying to capture the image of a specific person who happens to be a different ethnicity from me. If I decided to wear darker makeup, does that make me racist?

That is a rhetorical question. I know I am not racist, and my choice to wear makeup to represent Beyonce’s skin tone is not a reflection of any of my beliefs that would position one race as inferior to another. I also think one would be missing the point of my costume, and racism, if that’s the connection they make.

I am in no way denying that racism exists, that people perform racism today. But my experiences with the contemporary concept of racism and popular discussions of the topic is that racism has been watered down–not something that necessarily means views of inherent superiority, but rather more commonly serves as a label to be liberally thrown at people whose actions may echo racist actions from a time that was less equal, even though they can mean something entirely different today.

Let’s take a look at Julianne Hough’s Crazy Eyes costume from last year and the social media accusations of racism: “The hair & ID BADGE should’ve been enough. @juliannehough YOU HAD AN ID BADGE TO INDICATE WHO YOU WERE. You didn’t need offensive blackface.”

Many arguments against Hough’s costume echoed that point: she didn’t have to wear blackface, as other components of her costume were enough to identify her as Crazy Eyes.

Is that the solution: a name tag? And what makes hair acceptable, and skin unacceptable?

The function of these popular conversations (or more realistically, tweets and posts) appear to only sensationalize the idea of the controversy, without providing any deeper solution to the issues that people find controversial in the first place.

Hough publicly tweeted her apology, expressing it was not her “intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way.” Perhaps Hough’s decision was culturally insensitive, a travesty even, considering she could have gone even further to resemble Crazy Eyes. But as she admits, the intent was not racist. Whether or not you believe her may speak to deeper considerations. I propose we drop the reflex racist accusations that reduce racism to aesthetic choices that are made as a simulation of an alternate culture at best, or in poor taste at worst.

The issue of costumes gets even murkier when it comes to non-specific people or characters–stereotypes. While it doesn’t appear to be running this year, the Ohio University Poster Campaign addressed ideas of cultural stereotyping between 2011–2013 with the slogan “We’re a culture, not a costume.” Although not explicitly speaking against racism, it touched on ideas of prejudice and how stereotypical costumes reinforce prejudice.

When the campaign launched in 2011, it positioned five non-white people wearing nondescript (American?) clothing, holding a picture of a (white?) person wearing a costume of a stereotype associated with his or her culture. I was disappointed by the lack of a white stereotype, and felt this omission reinforced the white American as the dominant culture who is the one performing these offensive stereotypes, rather than being subjected to his or her own. [Unless you look at the whole campaign as a giant commentary on the white stereotype as one who parodies different racial identities a la minstrelsy.] Are other ethnicities incapable of stereotyping? Why aren’t the culturally insensitive members of these populations represented? The 2012 campaign partially addressed that issue by including a white person contrasted with the hick stereotype. I can’t tell definitively, but it looks like white individuals were cast to perform the stereotypical images throughout each iteration of the campaign.

My reading of this campaign is that it is wrong–or “not okay” and “not funny”–when white people parody other races for a night. Again, what about non-whites who do the same thing? Is that still wrong? Would it be okay if it was an Asian non-geisha dressed as a geisha? Or can only Japanese geishas dress as geishas ever? I find it fascinating when the social acceptability of the same action varies depending on the racial group of the person performing the action. Doesn’t that suggest racism- to allow one race the right to behave in a way while forbidding another to do the same?

Moreover, a stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” I’m not sure how an Asian stereotype of a studious person who eats rice is a mark of disgrace. What is disgraceful about this image and according to whom? And how can that individual predict he will experience it for life? It saddens me to think that this person may never feel empowered enough to prove himself contrary to that stock image, but I am skeptical that it is because someone else dresses up like a parody of him.

In regards to the 2013 campaign, as a member of “the world” I look at the non-costumed members of the racial group contrasted with the caricature of their race and know I do not see that group as the caricature, making the tagline untrue for me. Even still, a stereotypical costume could be funny. Using humor to satirize the prevalence of these stereotypes can point out faults in common (mis)representations in funny ways, similar to 19th century black actors performing minstrelsy.

I am aware that in the scope of a campaign, especially a social awareness campaign, it is difficult to address all dimensions of a topic in a way that can effectively impel systemic change. The breadth and depth of the underlying issues that the campaign is trying to illustrate are often compromised in favor of oversimplified design and copy that serves primarily to attract the attention of susceptible audiences, to raise [superficial] awareness and spark [underdeveloped] dialogues, trivializing an issue and reducing it to its one-dimensional identifications, overlooking what can be done to actually improve matters. Looking at the posters, the awareness raised at first glance is that white people imitate other cultures inaccurately, and this is not okay with members of the imitated culture (even though I am okay with it, and I am a member of one of the imitated cultures). Is the solution to prejudice and racism to only wear clothes that represent an individual’s own ethnic culture? Given the entire history of cross-cultural exchange, is this even possible?

Even though I may still fall short, I’m trying to take the conversation further.

Would there even be controversy if a non-white person did the same thing Hough did? Or the people in the Poster Campaign did? Many arguments against costumes that appropriate different ethnic cultures posit that this perpetuates white privilege, that people performing these alternate cultural images are taking iconic images without addressing previous systems of inequality that the culture experienced historically. Even members of a given race may not relate to or understand the injustices that their forebears experienced, but does their ethnicity excuse their adoption of their ancestors’ traditions? Or is it a requisite for a person to have full knowledge of the history of his or her practices before it is seen as appropriate to appropriate them?

Cultural stereotyping and appropriation doesn’t just happen with “dominant” white cultures taking on traditions of non-white cultures. Ethnicities across the world adopt “white” practices too. Cosmetic surgery is available to those that want features of bigger eyes, pointier noses, whiter skin that are commonly associated with Caucasians, yet still occur in different racial groups. Some may argue that the dominance of white culture encourages members of different ethnicities to look like them. But some Caucasians who aren’t born with these features undergo the same operations to achieve an ideal of physical beauty determined by mainstream culture in which numerous races participate. How can certain popular “ideals” exist separate from issues of race, while others seem impossible to divorce?

In other contemporary non-Halloween/costume situations where individuals portray different [cultural] personas, in theater or film for instance, how acceptable/unacceptable is that compared to what Hough did? Why? Not just ethno-culturally, but what about performances of gender or sexual orientation or class different to that of the performer? Is it the professional call of actors to assume different identities that makes it more acceptable? Are civilians not granted that leeway, not even for Halloween or theme parties?

Further, why is attire under fire while other cultural aspects like music, cuisine and speech are now generally acceptable? What about cultural practices? Yoga is a tradition that has been subsumed across countless cultures, some who maintain its Eastern practices and others who have transformed it into a Western exercise, yet yoga is widely accepted in the range of interpretations nonetheless. What will it take for people to accept appropriation of different cultural appearance in the same way?

I find it ironic that the pervasive contemporary “political correctness” that often comes as a knee-jerk reaction to shun initially controversial topics, is often guilty of the generalizations that are characteristic of the acts they are criticizing. In the same way it is a gross generalization for a person to wear a headdress and say they represent all Native Americans, it could be a prejudicial generalization for a person to immediately accuse a headdress-clad individual of racism if that individual’s intent was to imitate an image of a Native American who does wear a headdress, and not the whole population of indigenous peoples. Indeed, in this instance, in Hough’s case, and many cases really, the question of racism and prejudice is answered by intent, which no one has any way of predicting without being prejudicial themselves.

I’ll say it again, racism and how it is performed is such a complex issue, the question of intent and execution raising another complication: what if a racist person aims to depict a cross-section of people he or she believes to be racially inferior, yet doesn’t do so in a way that isn’t widely interpreted as racist? Is it better or worse than someone who isn’t racist, yet manages to offend a considerable number of people? We should exercise a little more patience before accusing others of racism, but will that excuse those who are actually racist?

These questions are not rhetorical. Issues of racism, discrimination, prejudice and cultural appropriation raise so many literal questions that I don’t even know where to begin looking for answers. Questions like, where do people draw the lines? How are these lines socially defined? Can we move forward if we keep standing behind these lines? What does moving forward look like?

To me, moving forward means asking all these questions and trying to think deeply about my answers, being open to what others have to say, and taking the time to think even more deeply about their answers.

I am in no way advocating that individuals stereotype groups of people through costume, nor am I saying that individuals shouldn’t be offended when they feel misrepresented. I’m suggesting that costumes can serve other functions for the wearer that have nothing to do with subjugating the costume inspiration.

It is unfortunate when racist ideals are perpetuated in Halloween traditions, but it doesn’t do any justice to the issue to place such an emphasis on Halloween costumes. With accusations of racism liberally labeled on people who perform historically racist actions like blackface, the accusation overlooks the progress that has happened since then, which allows these actions to exist in a non-racist context. Unfortunately, when people disregard progress, this can serve to hold people back in historic terms rather than acknowledging that individuals and groups can be empowered enough today to not experience oppression through these actions. After all, consumer culture tells us we are all different and need to purchase products that demonstrate our individuality. Identifying and celebrating our differences -racial or otherwise- is not the same as declaring superiority based on those differences.

Racism existed way before contemporary Halloween practices took form, and currently exists well beyond them. A costume does not make a person racist. A person’s beliefs of racial superiority make them racist. And yes, this can manifest in a stereotypical costume. But preventing someone from wearing the costume isn’t going to make the wearer any less racist. Outside of education–and not just mere awareness–I’m not sure what will.

For this Halloween season, I stand behind my intention to portray Beyonce to the best of my aesthetic ability, through wardrobe, hair and makeup. I am not going to go so far as to sing/dance/talk like her, however, because I lack the resources (talent) to fully represent her in that way. Sure, I may still not end up looking like her at all, but I hope that if any offense is taken, it is related to my execution of not looking faithfully like Bey, rather than reducing me to a racist.

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Originally published at www.mynuvotv.com.

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