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Halloween costumes misappropriate culture

Katrina Linden | Thursday, October 31, 2013

With Halloween happening this week, I thought it only appropriate to discuss the phenomenon of mocking other cultures with a costume for the laughs it may bring. I surprisingly find myself questioning how an individual dressed as a stereotypical Mexican is offensive, while another could dress as a Japanese geisha for Halloween and be considered unique and alluring. As a Latina, I should be extremely offended when individuals of another ethnicity wear Halloween costumes that stereotype my culture and I should thus consider it racist. However, I am supposed to accept that my various Hispanic friends can do the same without any reprimands because they are of that culture or ethnicity. I find these double standards to be confusingly touchy subject that has no definite explanation.
Those who choose to dress as exaggerated forms of one’s ancestors and relatives and successfully mock generations of culture do so because they do not understand that it is only okay when people of that specific origin do it. They likely believe that because a costume is sold in a bag by a commercial department store that it has suddenly become okay to mock the drunken Mexican man of the Mexican Revolution riding a donkey across the desert.
Maybe it is due to the over-exaggeration of the characters being portrayed. No real Mexican dresses in an oversized sombrero and rainbow poncho with a bottle of tequila in his hand. That’s why it is presumably funny. Trayvon Martin was wearing a gray hoodie and carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Tea. That’s not funny. But yet, I have seen a handful of costumes of the very sort this week alone. Why do people insist on dressing up as such controversial figures and expect others to not be offended by them? Do they legitimately believe their costumes are hilariously original? Further, I’m not quite sure I can see the humor in a costume depicting stereotypical American subculture archetypes either, yet others do and find it acceptable to dress as so.
Perhaps the reason nobody was offended by a geisha costume was because there was nobody around to defend it at the time. In an increasingly more culturally diverse society it is more difficult to get away with these kinds of things. People of American ethnic subcultures are becoming more empowered in social and political arenas, allowing them to raise their voice and have their opinion be heard and further respected more so than they would have been even five years ago. Campaigns like the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” attest to that. But still, I am plagued by the question of why it is okay for a Latino to dress as his own ethnic stereotype, or for an African-American to dress as a figure of his culture, but others may not. I fear I am missing something.
Greater than this comes the question of why it is okay for one group of individuals to mock themselves using racial slurs affectionately to refer to a companion of the same race, but it becomes extremely racist when a white male says the same to a friend.
I know I risk appearing unsympathetic or prejudiced. But, I am still having a difficult time figuring this out. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that these are our cultures as individuals of various ethnic groups; the same ones that those of mainstream American culture and society have oppressed and rejected throughout the decades. Why now, has rapping and twerking become cool, “street” tacos have become an American food staple, and dressing as Tupac in full black face for Halloween has become less of admiring an advocate of ethnic empowerment and more of a mockery of the “thug life”?
By taking another individual’s culture and warping the meaning of it, it not only devalues the novelty of it but also creates a mockery of it, essentially stripping individuals of the very essence of their being. I do believe that as an ethnic minority, the most important thing for me is holding on to my culture. And when another person takes a cultural practice or tradition and superficially appropriates it, we have nothing else to call our own. Something that an individual may see as funny or trendy in mimicking it in essence, could potentially greatly offend a member of the culture being portrayed.
This is not saying to stop enjoying the benefits of my culture and the culture of others, but to do so with the awareness of the significance of your actions in terms of that culture. Have common sense and do not believe that because a cisgender middle-class white male would not be offended by a redneck Halloween costume that a middle-class Hispanic woman would not be offended by your portrayal of ethnic minorities whether in spite or in humor, because they are two completely different experiences.

Katrina Linden is a sophomore English major with a Studio Art minor living in Lewis Hall. She can be reached at     klinden1@nd.edu
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