Two days before Halloween, students gathered to discuss the complex, intersectional issue of Halloween costume cultural appropriation and the different scenarios in which it can occur.
The open dialogue, titled “It’s Just a Costume, Right?” was scheduled to be timely and informative, and aimed to give people the tools they need to discuss the issue. The event was hosted by CommonGround and the IGR Student Engagement Team.
LSA senior Elena Ross, a member of the Student Engagement Team, was one of the students responsible for organizing the night’s discussion and originally suggested its main topic.
“It’s an issue I see come up every year and that people don’t really know how to handle,” Ross said in an interview after the event. “We also tried to highlight bystander intervention in this dialogue for that reason.”
“We came away with some actual, tangible tools to use when … we’re seeing people dressed up in costumes that we find offensive,” she added.
Generally, the participants discussed ways to mitigate and intervene in situations where Halloween costumes target and present microaggressions toward specific cultural identities, spanning the gamut from ethnically charged to gender-based outfits. One guideline in this process was for students to “expect and accept a lack of closure” on the issue in general.
“I came here today because I feel strongly about my Indian cultural heritage, and so I identify with people whose cultures are portrayed in Halloween costumes,” said LSA senior Sana Isaac. “So I think it’s an important topic and one I’d like to hear other perspectives on.”
The dialogue began with a list of discussion guidelines and a presentation of different definitions of cultural appropriation.
One of the first exercises involved participants walking to one of three different colored pieces of tape — green, yellow and red — on the ground for any given scenario presented. The green piece represented individuals being “OK” with the scenario, the yellow piece with them being unsure or slightly uncomfortable and the red piece with them feeling firmly that the situation was unacceptable.
Scenarios presented a variety of potentially offensive costume possibilities, from someone of native ancestry wearing a “sexy native princess” costume, to someone wearing a “white trash” costume by taping pieces of crumpled paper to themselves, to a Black person dressing as Justin Bieber.
Other scenarios intentionally did not reveal the identities of the costume wearer. For instance, one situation addressed someone wearing a Caitlyn Jenner costume; another addressed someone dressing as President Barack Obama.
After completing the exercise, participants split off into small groups to discuss their spectrum of views. Most agreed that the intent of the wearer was important, but that wearing a person or identity as a costume carries weight regardless.
Rackham student Mike Varano acknowledged the range of intent in cultural appropriation, from some making uninformed decisions and others perpetuating stereotypes intentionally.
“I think that’s a huge problem,” he said in an interview before the event began. “I would lean towards the direction of … people not having enough sensitivity or maybe questioning the decisions they’re making around these things. And I think that we could do to have more awareness and reflection about even costumes that are meant to be jokes especially.”
During one exercise, the participants got back together in a circle to discuss their conversations. Many scenarios revealed a variety of perspectives.
For example, the group was split with regard to the “white trash” costume. Some felt that the particular scenario of wearers taping crumpled paper to themselves was acceptable, as it was a clever play on words and not a direct attempt at stereotyping. Others believed that any stereotyped attempt to wear a marginalized group, such as white people of low socioeconomic standing, was dangerous.
The “sexy native princess” scenario was highlighted for being both appropriative and sexist. LSA senior Corine Rosenberg pointed out the “exotic erotic” phenomenon — that people who are deemed “exotic” for arbitrary reasons can be harmfully sexualized and dehumanized.
The dialogue then turned to acting out skits to promote bystander intervention, allowing participants to tag each other in to intervene while another participant pretended to wear an appropriative costume.
Being able to educate the appropriative wearer became complicated, as scenarios in which these costumes were worn at parties made it more difficult for bystanders to effectively inform the wearer. Potential issues in the “party” situation included the wearer being drunk or the environment being too casual to intervene.
During group discussion, LSA junior Adedolapo Adeniji was interested in pointing out why costumes of particular people — such as Caitlyn Jenner, Nicki Minaj, Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin — become popular.
“Dress up as a celebrity, but why are you costuming (them)?” she asked.
Particular attention was given to the Caitlyn Jenner costume, which is expected to be a top-selling choice this year. Many felt that any attempt to appropriate an identity, such as transgender, Black, Native American or Mexican, in particular, is harmful.
The general consensus was that there is a clear issue with being able to wear these identities as a costume for the night, as opposed to being someone who actively lives with these identities and the stereotypes that come with them.
“You don’t want to give people the idea that you can wear this identity and then throw it away,” said LSA senior Ivory Bradley during group discussion.