The day after the 2016 election was one of the hardest days of my pedagogical career. I was teaching high school literature in Memphis, Tennessee, and the majority (all but one) of my students were people of color. The election results meant that the world felt infinitely less safe--literally overnight.
For many self-proclaimed “liberals,” this was the first of many times we threatened to “move to Canada.” Perhaps it was also the first time you secretly scrawled “Mrs. Justin Trudeau” on a napkin. Or, if you’re a flaming feminist like myself, maybe you wrote “Mr. Justin van Milligen” and fantasized about what a compassionate and empathetic stay-at-home dog nanny he would make (no disrespect). Maybe you even went so far as to wonder how long it would take to become a Canadian citizen once the marriage was consummated.
And if any of these hypotheticals are resonating with you, I’m willing to bet that your heart was dashed to bits in 2019 when you (and the whole world) found out that America’s sweetheart was none other than a brownface-wearing racist.
That’s right. In 2001, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended an Arabian Knights party wearing make-up to darken his complexion. And in 2019 we all, collectively cringed, cried, and threw our wedding rings in the trash.
In 2020, words like “appropriation” and “racism” are used frequently, if not interchangeably. And as we prepare for All Hallow’s Eve, many of us are wondering, “Is my halloween costume racist?” We know better than to put on any type of complexion altering make-up. And while we can’t quite explain why, we’ve stopped dressing our blonde-haired daughters as Pocahontas. And therein lies the problem. It’s very easy to ban, chastise and otherwise shame a person’s behavior. But it’s exceedingly more difficult to help that person understand WHY that behavior ultimately contributes to a less equitable world.
The reason has to do with power dynamics and systemic oppression, two words that are real conversation stoppers. But shouldn’t be. And when you acknowledge those things exist, you suddenly have a far bigger problem than a costume on your hands.
There’s something incredibly untasteful (not to mention unkind), about fetishizing positions of inferiority. There is nothing romantic or poetic about living in poverty, with an addiction, or under oppression. So when you dress as a gangster, a chief, or a samurai--but you have no context or empathy for the people you’re portraying--yes, you’re contributing to a racially biased society. In those cases, costumes are not tributes, but rather caricatures, depictions that reinforce biases and negative stereotypes while simultaneously encouraging outsiders to group and “other” humans that look and behave differently.
That said, it is entirely possible to admire another culture respectfully.
So tonight, as you iron out your costume in preparation for tomorrow’s socially-distant fette, rather than (or in addition to) asking yourself, “Is my halloween costume racist/sexist/offensive?” consider also asking these questions:
Am I portraying a person who has been systematically oppressed?
If the answer is YES, consider honoring that person or type of people in a different way. Oppression is not like a costume--you can’t take it off at the end of the night. So let’s not trivialize it.
Do I PERSONALLY know a person who falls into this category?
If the answer is NO, consider a different costume. Chances are your costume will err on the side of hyperbole and exaggeration and be highly influenced by the media.
Am I ready to talk about my costume? Will I be open to a kind and non-violent conversation about why I admire the culture and/or person I’m portraying?
Again, if the answer is NO, consider another outfit. This is probably the most crucial of the three questions. Conversations are important! Being able to talk about your costume without being unkind or defensive is a must.
At the end of the day, teaching empathy is hard. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! At Nova, we believe that empathy can and should be taught. That’s why we incorporate diverse narratives and experiences into all our courses.
Learn more at nova-learning.org.