• Who wants to be an IT worker, project management lead or broke uni student when you can morph into Pikachu, Hillary Clinton or a bloodsucking ghoul instead? (Getty Images)
Halloween increasingly sparks debates about cultural appropriation. But what’s truly scary, writes Neha Kale, isn’t racial insensitivity. It’s the prospect that racist costumes aren’t really costumes at all.
By
Neha Kale

27 Oct 2016 - 12:00 PM  UPDATED 27 Oct 2016 - 1:59 PM

Your favourite holiday probably has a lot to do with the urges that it lets you indulge. For closet romantics, Valentine’s Day is a reprieve from a world that prizes passive-aggressive dating manoeuvres over six-course dinners and long-stemmed roses. Workaholics might complain about Christmas but secretly delight at the chance to swap midnight conference calls for an enforced lazy spell.

Halloween, the much-loved American holiday that, along with taco trucks and burger bars, has fast become a fixture in Australia, is fun because it lets you swim in a sea of alternate realities, if just for one night. I don’t begrudge this, even if I’m always the spoilsport who forgets to dress up for Halloween parties. Who wants to be an IT worker, project management lead or broke uni student when you can morph into Pikachu, Hillary Clinton or a bloodsucking ghoul instead?

Halloween, which has roots in Samhain – an ancient Celtic festival that saw people don costumes to ward off ghosts and was introduced to the US by Irish immigrants in the 1800s – might be the country’s biggest commercial holiday, reaping $US 6.9 billion annually (according to an October 2015 Time report). But Halloween also increasingly fans debates about whose reality it’s acceptable to try on.

It’s the fact that Halloween gives them permission to be their true self — a self whose racist instincts are submerged by polite society — that turns my blood to ice water and gives me the chills. 

In October 2015, Heath Morrow, an Alabama schoolteacher who dressed up as Kanye West for a private Halloween party, posted a photo of himself in blackface to Facebook. Although Morrow apologised, the case — which has troubling parallels with the Perth mother who recently painted her son’s face brown to resemble his AFL idol, the Fijian-Australian footballer Nic Naitanui for Book Week — hints at a world in which the minstrel shows that delighted audiences in New York and Melbourne aren’t quaint historical artefacts. They cast long shadows in the here and now.

Disney was accused of cultural appropriation for selling a costume depicting Moana, the Polynesian protagonist of its new movie complete with brown skin and traditional Pacific tattoos and Amazon was forced to pull something called a ‘Sexy Saudi Burqa’ from its website after backlash from customers in the last month.

As I type this, Spirit Halloween, a US-based party store is being (rightly) condemned on Twitter for advertising  Halloween outfits that play on the most tattered Native American stereotypes.

Although the store refuses to shelf the faux leather mini-dresses and colourful headdresses (which are modelled by busty blondes and have names like “Reservation Royalty” and “Queen of the Tribe”) the outrage that greets these transgressions is telling. It’s proof that we’re wising up to the fact that appropriating aspects of a marginalised culture — when you’re privileged enough to avoid the lived experience of that culture — is the height of insensitivity.

The popularity of #Iamnotacostume, a hashtag that lets minorities rally together to fight the callous trick-or-treaters who lift deeply significant traditions to be a Sexy Pocahontas or a Bollywood Starlet is the biggest upside of this whole sorry mess. It’s the colonialist impulse playing in an endless loop, like watching the shower scene from Psycho on repeat.

If 31 October could make us transform these urges into something closer to empathy, then I’ll come to your Halloween party. If you’re lucky, I might even dress up. 

But, for me, wildly inappropriate costumes aren’t as rattling as what those costumes might represent. I’ve grown desensitised to the possibility that white people might use Halloween to try on a false self that is culturally insensitive. It’s the fear that Halloween may give them permission to be their true self — a self whose racist instincts are submerged by polite society — that turns my blood to ice water and gives me the chills.

Halloween might allow us to temporarily inhabit other kinds of bodies but it also makes literal the ways in which people of colour are seen as one-dimensional caricatures, reduced to body paint, bindis and costumes to slip into and slip out of the next day.

By focusing on the fact that cultural appropriation is insensitive, we forget that sensitivity, like tolerance, simply asks us to reign in our worse instincts.

If 31 October could make us transform these urges into something closer to empathy, then I’ll come to your Halloween party. If you’re lucky, I might even dress up.

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @Neha_Kale and Instagram @nehakale

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