How Do You Tell Your Boss Their Halloween Costume is Racist?

I didn’t know the term ‘cultural appropriation’ and I would’ve been too scared to use it anyway

Heather M. Edwards
Oct 3, 2019 · 6 min read
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All rights © Mathew Schwartz. Newark, NJ

October is here. And within those pop-up Halloween shops that reanimate the corpses of old department stores every year lurks more than the possibility for s̶l̶u̶t̶t̶y “sexy” Halloween costumes.

Before you do your costume shopping this year, before you got to work in costume and before you go to any costume parties, read this beautiful guide by Amber Rose. Costume accordingly.

Then, prepare a mental script of what you might say to anyone in your life, (calibrate by relationship), who inadvertently appropriates another culture as a costume so you don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Once upon a time, I was wearing my Jem wig and a pink dress for the second year in a row. I found a purple sequin belt at a secondhand store and made my own giant pink star-shaped earrings out of cardboard, sans superpowers.

I wore this costume to work knowing full well no one might get it. On the second year, I didn’t get my boss’s costume.

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Jem and the Holograms © Hasbro

“So what are you?” I asked her when she came in.

“I’m ethnic!” she announced with a ta-da outstretch of arms.

My jaw dropped and likely hung open for a beat too long. No words came to my brain and no words came out of my mouth.

For whatever it’s worth, know that this woman is a powerful advocate for vulnerable populations and it was an honor and an inspiration to work with her. No exaggeration. Her entire illustrious career was in protecting and advocating for vulnerable groups. This woman would be the first one to speak up and speak the loudest if someone used a racial slur. I think the only thing she despised more than bullies was injustice. So I knew that she intended no harm. But I also knew it wasn’t ok.

Her ensemble didn’t even approximate what white people typically get wrong when they appropriate other cultures. And I come from a town where, like a meme I saw once, white librarians really do wear dashikis. Hippie subcultures indeed owe much of their fashion missteps to cultural appropriation. They didn’t stop with white dreads or cornrows.

All rights © Awkward Black Girl

But instead of finding any gentle way to tell my boss that I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it but she still needed to go home and change so that nobody would be hurt by her mistake, I made it absurdly worse.

Of course we know that people aren’t a costume. But my first thought was selfish: protect your job. How in the fresh hell was I supposed to discipline my boss? My second thought was less selfish but woefully misguided: help her make this less offensive by making it more accurate somehow.

It seems I was more motivated by not offending her. Instead of just falling on the first sword I could think of, any sword, I didn’t explain to her, in front of two coworkers, that her costume was inappropriate from concept to execution. I didn’t follow her into her office and talk to her privately.

With unexamined panic, I tried to make “ethnic” more “accurate”. As if trying to wear an adjective were an appropriate costume to begin with. As if I, also a white woman, were capable of correcting her mistake by making her look more “ethnic”. Accuracy wasn’t the biggest problem. Appropriation was.

“Here,” I reached into my desk drawer. “You should probably wear bigger earrings.” My mind instantly went barren wasteland but for this one random stereotype planted who knows when and still growing like that one little seedling in WALL-E. (Bigger earrings?? What the fuck is wrong with you!!) Cue self-loathing. Even cowardly silence would’ve been better. Saying nothing and hoping an equal would talk with her so a subordinate wouldn’t have to would’ve been better. But no.

I helped a good woman make her accidental racism worse. Because in the depths of my white mind “ethnic” women wear big hoop earrings. And when a white woman wants to imitate non-white women, I didn’t stop her. I was right beside her to make sure she took cultural appropriation even further.

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I am not free of racism. Some of it is entrenched and it can be shocking to discover racism in yourself like a cyst you never knew was there.

Anti-racism allows for the learning curve we’re embarrassed by. But lick your wounds, my friends. If you’re feeling guilty, the best apology is to change.

When someone inadvertently appropriates a culture, or in this case an imaginary amalgamation of ethnicities, helping them make their costume more accurate is not the solution. Explaining to them that people aren’t costumes to begin with is the solution. You don’t have to discipline them or chastise them, just help them. Help them understand context and help them choose a costume that doesn’t mock or even imitate anyone already marginalized. And if they push back don’t waver. Explain to them that cultural appropriation is not cultural appreciation, no matter how much they know about a culture or admire it, that wearing someone’s life like a costume is not celebrating it, it’s commodifying it. Remind them that you know they’re a good person and because you know they didn’t mean to offend anyone you know they’ll take context to heart and course-correct.

If someone close to you dresses up like any kind of Native American (guilty, second grade), geisha, gypsy (guilty, eighth grade), (or uses the word gypsy instead of Roma or Romani), Dia de Los Muertos sugar skulls (guilty, 2014), hula girl or any ethnicity that is not their own it’s your responsibility to have the awkward conversation with them. Even if they’re your supervisor. Even if they try to slough you off as an overreacting snowflake or hypersensitive buzz kill. No matter how they might react letting it go to unchecked perpetuates the spread of the but-I-didn’t-know defense that, while often true, does not alleviate the thousand cuts we can inflict with it.

Stick with professions, cartoon characters, TV or film characters, mythological characters or creatures or a specific person. A centaur, firefighter or male stripper, Gem or Rainbow Bright, Medusa or Poseidon, Hillary Clinton or Obama.

And if you go as a person who is not your ethnicity wearing attire that is specific to them is sufficient — Obama’s tan suit or any pantsuit for Clinton, a sparkly long-sleeved leotard for Beyonce or a tennis outfit and racquet for Serena Williams.

(If you don’t know that blackface is racist and not ok under any circumstances a blog post in 2019 isn’t going to be enough to educate you.) Do some reading on the history of blackface.

Don’t stereotype non-white people like I did because I had more exposure to images from the media than I did to people in real life. What I did is not as bad as repeatedly screaming racial slurs at someone in a CVS parking lot and threatening them.

But every white person’s “not that bad” missteps accumulate and that weight is carried by POC — not by us misstepping not-racist white people. It adds up. And it can be avoided altogether. Why not make this life a little less hard on our fellow travelers?

Full disclosure: I never said anything to my boss. And I doubt anyone else did either. Neither one of us are racist. But we both made racist mistakes.

The shortest distance between “I’m not a racist” and “I am anti-racist” is a learning curve I thought I was already in front of. I loathe that my reaction was racist and made a bad situation worse. But I have my scripts ready so that, should something like this happen in my world again, I can positively redirect a mistake instead of reacting with my own.

With Liberty

Americans for Equality

Heather M. Edwards

Written by

twitter @h_m_edwards unsplash @heathermedwards

With Liberty

We don’t have to be experts on racism, international politics, refugee resettlement or gender equality to try our damndest to do right by one another.

Heather M. Edwards

Written by

twitter @h_m_edwards unsplash @heathermedwards

With Liberty

We don’t have to be experts on racism, international politics, refugee resettlement or gender equality to try our damndest to do right by one another.

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