Halloween is one of my favourite days of the year. It is a day reserved for two explicit purposes: dressing up and eating candy. With that kind of agenda, everyone should love Halloween. What’s not to love?
More than you’d think.
Writing for the Globe & Mail yesterday, Debra Soh exclaimed that “Fears of cultural appropriation have ruined Halloween.” Soh’s thesis is essentially that crusaders of political correctness (PC) cannot demonize every person who dons a racist costume because not everyone has bad intentions and we should engage in meaningful discussions with them.
On the face of it, I agree. It’s a fact that today’s political climate is polarizing. We need to all fine tune our listening skills and work to engage in productive dialogues.
But I diverge from Soh where, in discussing a happy medium between the wild west of yesteryear and today’s hypersensitive climate, she says “without [this happy medium], we lose the ability to discuss critical issues pertaining to race, and thereby spread true awareness.”
Again, I somewhat agree. If we see someone wearing an inappropriate costume, we shouldn’t just throw tomatoes at them, we should talk to them. But here’s the thing, we’ve been talking. White liberals have been saying for years all the reasons why dressing up as “sexy Indian” or “Compton cookout gangster” – aka cultural appropriation - is so wrong. Marginalized communities have been saying it for much longer (though perhaps without a platform).
So to tell us that this really isn’t that big of an issue - if we just calm down and engage in polite discussions, all the people dressed as “a Mexican” will probably see where we’re coming from - is belittling and unfair.
How many years have we had Pocahontas costumes for sale? How many times have people (not just white people, but many Indigenous peoples) told us that this is wrong? How many blog posts, Twitter threads, and emails to companies are required?
Soh goes on to discuss the importance of intentions; we must assess whether one is being malicious or is simply uninformed. While intentions should guide us in how we speak to someone about an issue, it shouldn’t dictate whether we speak to them. Intentions are irrelevant when it comes to bigotry. It doesn’t matter than your black face isn’t meant to offend anyone, it does. It doesn’t matter that you have nothing against Indigenous peoples when you dress up as Pocahontas, you’re still tokenizing, trivializing, and oversimplifying a culture.
To be civil
Where Soh ultimately lost me was when she used Megyn Kelly defending blackface as her example to compel us towards today’s buzzword of ‘civility.’ Blackface is bad, she promises, but “shutting down the conversation impinges on an opportunity to educate others.”
This is a common argument today from centrists and the right – why can’t you just talk to us about how much we offend you? Why can’t you just listen as we tell you why we feel we are entitled to wear blackface? It is yet another attempt to make the complainers – those pointing out the racism in the costume – as unreasonable, and the recipients – those donning the racism – as reasonable.
Soh concludes her article with this: “So, wear the costume you want, but be gracious and willing to listen if someone tells you that you’re being distasteful. And if you see someone dressed up in a way that you don’t like, be prepared tell them that, too.”
As if to say: people of the public, wear whatever you want in spite of preemptory protests. As if to say: snowflakes, wait until someone dresses up as offensive costume X before you share your concerns.
I’m not sure why she feels as though this is a better course of action. What does waiting do? That’s like telling us not to declare that saying the N word is always bad, but waiting until individuals say it and then have a discussion with each and every one of them.
First, it makes no sense to wait. Why not just tell people upfront how we feel about a certain word or action? How is that any different? Either way we are ‘policing’ someone else’s behaviour. This suggestion to delay the inevitable simply allows people one more chance to engage in problematic practices.
Second, by telling us not to make general ‘rules’ about social conduct, such questionable conduct persists. To require us to address each individual in a discriminatory costume is to a) demand a lot of our time, energy, and emotional labour, and b) position this an individual issue, a few bad apples in a few gauche costumes, rather than as an issue which is disseminated on a societal level.
As a former drama geek, I love Halloween. The idea that we have a day reserved for everyone to dress up in a fun costume and commit to a character brings me endless joy. I am grateful for this day, in which adults are given permission to use their imagination and simply play.
The last thing I want to do is politicize Halloween. And in that sense, perhaps Soh is right. Droning on about ‘appropriate’ costumes is a definite buzzkill. But we, the complainers, do not drone on because we get a kick out of it, like to cause drama, or have a bone to pick. We drone on because to not talk about it is to condone it, and we refuse to do so.
Sara Ahmed has written at length about complaint as feminist pedagogy. She posits that “to name a problem is to become a problem.” In other words, our calling attention to a problem is the problem in and of itself. Ahmed suggests that people who push back against feminists believe that everything would be dandy if we (the complainers) could let it rest.
That is exactly what Soh is saying in her article. PC culture ruined Halloween. It was all fun and games until Sandy showed up and said we shouldn’t dress as Nazis. Barry ruined everything when he said our ‘Indian’ costume upset him. If no one complained about inappropriate costumes then Halloween would be fun again!
But maybe it wasn’t political correctness that ruined Halloween. Maybe racism ruined Halloween.
Note: Soh later changed the title of her article to “This Halloween, don’t let cultural-appropriation fears shut down honest discussion,” but the content remains the same.