Identities, not costumes

When choosing a Halloween costume, be conscious of its implications

Halloween’s a time of year to forget about life, let loose and dress up as someone other than yourself. While the activities we embark on each year change as we get older, the big question remains the same: “What do I dress up as?”

This year, some popular costume choices will include H1N1, Lady Gaga, budget cuts and apparently illegal aliens. We don’t mean the kind that appeared in District 9. We’re talking about an “illegal alien” packaged as a man with dark skin, black moustache and green eyes, complete with an orange jumpsuit and “green card” and sold online.

This is one example of a costume that draws on racial stereotyping for its “humour” and it might be seen around campus this weekend.

Unfortunately, these racial costumes have earned a place in Queen’s history. In 2005, a Queen’s student dressed up as Miss Ethiopia by donning a pageantry dress, sash and blackface.

This incident sparked much online debate, outrage and national media coverage. Unfortunately, each year we continue to see our peers dressing in blackface for Halloween in the name of entertainment through costumes such as Samuel L. Jackson and Jimi Hendrix, as seen in 2008.

The potential for blackface to become more widespread seems heightened this year, with Michael Jackson’s passing and the election of President Obama.

Blackface has a long and well-documented history. We encourage readers to learn about it if they aren’t already familiar with it. In short, it’s the practice of painting one’s skin black to enact a racially-stereotyped caricature of black peoples.

Born out of slavery in the United States, actors used it to create and perpetuate racist stereotypes—for example, “happy-go-lucky plantation slave”—as a form of entertainment for white audiences. Although these minstrel shows are no longer a widespread phenomenon, blackface’s effects live on.

However, when it comes to the use of racial identities as a costume, it doesn’t stop at blackface.

Astoundingly, last Halloween QCRED members encountered more than a dozen costumes that involved dressing up as Aboriginal, Latino, Arab, East Asian, South Asian, Caribbean or African peoples.

It’s difficult for us to understand why some students seem to think it appropriate to dress up in racial stereotypes of other students’ identities, such as “Mexican,” “China Doll,” “Asian tourist,” and “Rastafarian,” which functions as experiences of everyday racism for people who occupy those identities.

The disproportionate number of people who choose to don a headdress, moccasins or what’s thought of as “Native” attire is particularly appalling. By choosing to do so, people forget Aboriginal peoples aren’t relics of the past but exist in the present as strong nations with diverse cultures.

When people reduce these cultures to the stereotypes of Chief, Warrior, Pocahontas or the highly sexualized “Indian Princess”—all readily available for purchase downtown—they reinforce a system built on racism intended to dehumanize Aboriginal peoples and distort their histories by imagining them not as real people, but as cartoonish stereotypes for the amusement of others. This is precisely the problem. Every time the topic of racialized costumes is raised, it’s met with cries of “Can’t you take a joke?”, “You’re too sensitive,” or “It’s just a costume.” But our identities aren’t a costume, a joke or an object to be used as entertainment. To think of another’s identity as a costume that can be put on is dehumanizing and insulting.

It’s a luxury to take differing racial identities as a joke or a form of entertainment. It’s a luxury to not have to question the realities of racism many people face on a daily basis. It’s a privilege that some can put on and take off another’s racial identity as easily as makeup, without having to live through that identity’s experience of racism.

This said, Halloween’s a time to be creative and spend time with friends. If anything can be taken away from this message, we would hope it’s to think critically about what implications your costume may have for others.

We do, after all, appreciate a humourous costume when we see one.

We know we’ll be heading out as juice boxes.

Ken Wang, ArtSci ’09, is the co-chair of Queen’s Coalition Against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination.

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