Everyone should be able to enjoy this commercial holiday and no one should have to worry about seeing themselves represented negatively so others can have a good time.
A few weeks ago, a Twitter screenshot began to circulate calling for people not to dress up as witches for Halloween because it was in the same line as dressing up in something like Día de los Muertos face paint. The post posits that witches are a living culture and should be respected. Although I generally disagree with the overall argument, I do think that living magickal practices should be respected.
My point of contention here is that the idea of the witch that children and adults are focusing on during the Halloween festivities has to do with a caricature version of witches created by the Church of England to persecute, namely, Catholics. Witch trials aside, a lot of the fanfare around witches has to do with that and has nothing to do with actual witchcraft. Pointy black hats, brooms for riding, copious amounts of black velvet, all of these, in my opinion are fine to dress up as. However, they are not ours.
Halloween is not exactly Samhain, the Wiccan practice that happens on the same day. Although they do share the idea that spirits and the like can walk the earth around this time, Samhain is a religious celebration and has nothing to do with the commercial celebration of Halloween.
That being said, there are many people who do identify as witches, be they Wiccan (the most popular witchcraft-based following in the US), Chaos magicians, or something else. There are also people who call themselves shamans, rootworkers, or vodou practitioners. These are all valid and living practices and are not there to be made into a costume.
Although the wide world of “pagan” practice may seem like a free for all as to what anyone wants to believe, it is not. There are many religions with their own belief systems, and although some things are religious practices, such as Hoodoo or rootwork, other things like Vodou or Santeria, are religious with deities and rules. These practices should be respected.
It is not ok to dress up as a “voodoo priest” for Halloween. This characterization often demonizes the practice and makes it into something “dark and scary.” Considering that the vast majority of practitioners of this religion are Black, it also operates as a sort of low key Blackface.
Various forms of vodou are practiced by Africans and descendants of the African Diaspora throughout the southern United States, Haiti, and Africa, each slightly different, but still very much alive. It is often associated with death and animal sacrifice, but the actual religion is very colorful and life affirming. Halloween costumes only serve to harm the true practice by enforcing the dark Halloween ideas about it.
It is not ok to dress up as a monk or shaman for Halloween. Both monks and shamans are part of rich religious cultures that exist and support their communities in a variety of ways. Their place in society should be respected.
Monks are most known for their relationship to the Buddhist religion, a practice that has been greatly appropriated in the west. It is important to remember that monks have a history of being persecuted and murdered for their practice. Shamans exist in many Asian and Native cultures. For many, these practices are being lost as more and more of their people are drifting away from Indigenous beliefs due to colonialism.
It is not ok to dress up as a “gypsy fortune teller” for Halloween. Gypsy is a derogatory term applied to the Romani people who have been persecuted throughout Europe for centuries. The act of divination is a respected practice and an important part of many belief systems.
The idea of the “gypsy fortune teller” is built around a stereotype of a Romani woman. Both men and women can practice divination and you don’t need to be wrapped in thirty shawls in a dark caravan to do it.
It is not ok to paint your face “like a sugar skull” for Halloween. Halloween is NOT Día de los Muertos. It is the first day of a three-day long celebration of remembrance for our ancestors celebrated in Mexico. Furthermore, the style of facial decoration that we associate most strongly with the holiday is not a sugar skull. Most people are mimicking La Calavera Catrina, who is, in and of herself, a political satire.
Regardless, unless you are planning to spend significant time at the cemetery with your friends and family, build an ancestor altar, and load it up with food and drink for the next three days, this celebration and all its colorful tenants are not for you if you are not Mexican.
Halloween is supposed to be a fun “holiday” where people get a chance to dress up and be spooky. Scary movies, zombies, and even witches are all fine to enjoy but it’s important to be respectful to living and breathing practices. The easiest way to do so is simply not wearing culture as costumes. It takes minimal effort to ensure you’re not culturally appropriating anyone.
You don’t need to dress up as a persecuted people to enjoy having your fortune read or reading fortunes for others. You don’t need to paint your face to remember you ancestors and attempt to be closer to them. Everyone should be able to enjoy this commercial holiday and no one should have to worry about seeing themselves represented negatively so others can have a good time.
Featured Image: carla_hauptmann Creative Commons