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This Halloween, Choose Respect

By Herman Kaur Bhupal and Judy Park

Another Halloween comes around, another Heaven and Hell, another Sweet and Nasty, and amid these festivities, we miss another opportunity to discuss the racial implications behind students’ choices in Halloween costumes. In recent years, college students around the country have initiated dialogue and action regarding offensive Halloween costumes. We would like to encourage our fellow students at Harvard to join the movement this year: Choose respect over insensitive humor when assembling your costumes. Even more importantly, take this opportunity to educate yourself. Engage in dialogue about why certain costumes can be perceived as offensive and how humor and caricature have historically been used to perpetuate racial and cultural stereotypes. In other words, we would like our campus to discuss how Halloween costumes can serve as mechanisms for cultural appropriation.

According to the blog Unsettling America, cultural appropriation can be defined as “the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards, and behavior from one culture or subculture by another [generally] when the subject culture is a minority culture. This ‘appropriation’ often occurs without any real understanding of why the original culture took part in these activities or the meanings behind these activities.”

Western culture has a history of finding entertainment in mocking and perpetuating stereotypes of oppressed groups (refer to the history of blackface) and selling products by depicting minority cultures as exotic, edgy, and desirable (see Urban Outfitters’ use of the Navajo name and Victoria Secret’s Sexy Little Geisha lingerie).  When you dress in blackface or a Native American headdress for Halloween, you’re placing yourself in association with a history of Western imperialism, slavery, and violence against minority groups. When you dress as “ghetto fab,” as a “redneck,” or as an “illegal alien,” you’re mocking the racial and socioeconomic inequalities in our society and appropriating what you think is minority culture for your one night of fun.

We can already hear the objections:

“But I didn’t personally contribute to the oppression of these minority groups and I don’t mean any harm.” The fact that you didn’t intend it to does not mean that your costume can’t offend others. By wearing a costume that mimics a minority culture, you’re publicly associating yourself with the Western history of oppressing minority groups and appropriating their cultures for humor or fashion. The impact on those who see and are affected by your costume still stands. Furthermore, in a setting like a college Halloween party, you often do not even have the opportunity to explain your intentions.

“I just love (insert minority identity here) culture and I want to show my appreciation.” In the context of Western tendencies to force their own culture upon others and selectively take what they want in return, you should ask yourself if you’re coming from a place of sincere respect, humility, and mutual understanding—i.e. were you invited to partake in this cultural appreciation? You should also ask yourself whether a Halloween party is really the place to show appreciation for a culture that is sacred and deeply personal to others. Halloween costumes are largely associated with a spooky, humorous, or partying atmosphere, and we think that there are more appropriate spaces to express cultural appreciation.

“My friend is (insert minority identity here) and he doesn’t find my costume offensive.” One individual does not speak for an entire racial, cultural, or religious group. Just because one member of the group is not offended, it does not mean that another member of the group will not be.

“How come you don’t have any problems with appropriating ‘white culture’—for example, if someone wore a blonde wig and dressed up as Marilyn Monroe?” Because historically, “white culture,” defined as mainstream Western culture in this context, has not been systematically subjugated by another racial or cultural group. Because white privilege still exists in the U.S. Because whiteness is considered the norm in our society, unlike minority groups with histories of systematic oppression, exotification, and stereotyping.

We use these concepts not to intellectualize our social scene or dampen a day of seemingly harmless fun, but instead to draw connections to the historical and contemporary implications of problematic costumes. We want you to have fun, but without ruining someone else’s fun or coming across as ignorant or malicious. And don’t think that this never happens on Harvard’s campus, given that Sigma Chi’s “Conquistabros and Navajos” party controversy was only three years ago. We do not bring this issue up to point fingers, but to show that our campus is not immune from these issues.

We hope that this article serves as a starting point for more discussions regarding Halloween costumes and party culture at Harvard. We ourselves have more questions regarding issues such as costumes that “sexualize” certain professions, such as the sexy nurse, secretary, or flight attendant. To provide a space to share our experiences and perspectives, Sustained Dialogue, a student organization committed to dialogue on issues of identity and diversity, is planning a dialogue event on Halloween costumes on Tuesday, October 29 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in Ticknor Lounge. We would love to hear your thoughts, work through ambiguities, and raise more questions together. This Halloween, we hope you choose respect, empathy, and education.

Herman Kaur Bhupal ’16 is an economics concentrator in Eliot House. Judy Park ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. They are leadership team members of Harvard College Sustained Dialogue.

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