If you’re on Facebook you might have seen this picture all ready, circulating all over and many jumping on the politically correct bandwagon and saying, don’t do this. Don’t be insensitive. It was a poster done by STAR (Students and Teachers Against Racism) out of Ohio.
I’ll probably get shot over what I’m going to say here. I’m very much against racism and bigotry but I believe this is a case of mixing apples and oranges. First let’s look at Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve, when it was believed that the veils between the worlds thinned and that ghosts and creatures of the underworld walked the night. It was a time when the world grew dark, lands were bereft of food and animals slaughtered for the winter larders. Back far enough, primitive peoples probably wondered if the sun would come back, if they had offended it somehow. That’s why there were always festivals of light on the winter solstice, when the longest night arrived and then the days grew longer. No one knew if it was gods or not.
Hallowe’en’s Celtic name is Samhain (sow-en) and as time went by it became a time to dress children in costumes; scary creatures, ghosts, goblins, skeletons and other things that go bump in the night. It evolved to other costumes but there is a long and complex history of Hallowe’en, with trick or treating, guising, asouling or in costume. Masquerades have existed for centuries.
So dressing up is part of Hallowe’en and has been so for a long time. Now the pictures above have a child of (I’m presuming) African-American, Japanese, Mexican and Arab ethnic groups. They each hold up a picture of a cartoon or a person in costume and it says “This is not who I am and it is not okay.” The top says We’re a culture, not a costume.” And indeed all cultures are very complex.
This campaign was started to stop racial stereotyping, which is a good thing and all airports and police should really pay heed to that. Now the Arab costume has the guy wearing a bomb, as a terrorist I suppose. That is extremely in poor taste, just as dressing like the World Trade Center with a plane flying into you would be. So that costume needs to be tossed. The other pictures have a guy on a donkey, and a Geisha girl. They are indeed stereotypes. They are of earlier eras when in fact there were some people who dressed this way. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t unusual, it was the way it was. They were part of the culture of the time. Just as wearing a dress with a white linen apron, a cap with tips out and wooden shoes was a traditional Dutch costume. Stereotypes start as types.
I doubt there are few people who would put on a costume of a sailor, or a turbaned Maharajah, or of a witch (image from here) and presume that is the way people dress now and that all of a race are like this. Yes, I add witch because branches of neopaganism (Wicca) have members called witches. While there might be a few pagans who get upset at the stereotypical green-skinned witch dressed in black with a wart on her nose as a costume, most will keep a level head and understand that people don’t see them this way.
I think we need to understand that dressing up in a costume from cultural history (whether a Hawaiian hula dancer, an Aztec king, a French prince, a Viking, a Chinese Mandarin…) does not mean we presume that all people of a particular race look or dress this way. It is part of history and traditional dress used in various festivals to this day imitate those costumes of long ago. Of the four pictures above, the terrorist one is wrong, the other two are historical aspects of a culture, and the last one is what in terms of racism? A person should not be bitten by a vampire? Is it racial stereotyping of vampires or black people because vampires only go after them? I don’t think I understand that one and would it be better or the same if a white person was being bitten? Dressing as a member of the Ku Klux Klan would be very tasteless and downright dangerous in some ares, though it would indeed be scary.
So what is right and wrong here? Hallowe’en does not say to treat all costumed people as bigots or racists, nor does it support racism. It doesn’t emulate racial stereotyping. It does let a person dress up. If First Nations went as a cowboy, and a white person as an Indian, would that be wrong, or just having fun with stereotypes of old?