Wearing a problematic costume is a refusal to recognize the pain of someone else’s experience, and a refusal to acknowledge the harm people can do.
By Gloria Oladipo
Some people just don’t want to learn. Some people don’t care. Despite it being the year of 2019, hoards of problematic individuals are still dressing in costumes they know they shouldn’t be wearing. From Black or brown-face to dressing as an incarcerated person, we’re subjected to people’s complicity in the dehumanization of others for their fun. At this point, I think most people share a fairly firm understanding of which Halloween costumes are okay to wear versus which ones are not appropriate. The decision to wear something problematic isn’t a “mistake,” but an intentional choice to be racist, ableist, and beyond.
Most of the time, mistakes aren’t mistakes. People wear costumes with the purposeful intent to recreate someone else’s experience, one they assume can be summarized by an outfit. Most people recognize what will, at least, publicly be called out as inappropriate and harmful. They know wearing cornrows will come across as cultural appropriation so they elect to wear “french braids”. They don’t wear Blackface, but maybe they wear other signifiers of race such as an Afro wig. Maybe they don’t paint their face brown, but wear a sombrero to emulate a Mexican ethnicity. They still want the effect of the costume—to match with friends or be “controversial”—but are desperate to avoid accountability.
The word “mistake” assumes ignorance. It assumes either not understanding the ways that systems of oppression are perpetuated or not understanding that they exist in the first place. “Mistake” often assumes a lack of malicious intent in someone’s action, an assumption further used to deny responsibility and minimize the harms of someone’s action. But despite the thought process behind wearing a costume—to mock a marginalized group, to fit in with peers, etc.—there are basic assumptions behind the decision and execution of a costume.
An offensive costume first assumes the lack of seriousness to which you give someone else’s situation. It assumes a general frivolity about how you interpret someone’s life and its hardships, their experiences, and trauma. Conversely, we have already seen costumes of undocumented people (purposefully called the “illegal alien” costume and being sold by major realtors like Target and Amazon). I have seen several costumes of people dressed up as prisoners, wearing orange jumpsuits and, sometimes, other signifiers of gang culture such as teardrop tattoos. There are companies selling hoodies with names of a school shooting, turning tragedy into a fashion statement. The people donning these costumes have no respect for the trauma outlining these experiences. They don’t care about how many children are incarcerated in detention camps, separated from their loved ones and facing physical, mental, and sexual abuse. They don’t care about America’s vicious carceral system that disproportionately traps Black and Brown people, exposing them to horrendous conditions. The trauma that children experiencing violence in their school go through is considered secondary, hence the lack of policy to address it. To them, the costume isn’t serious and neither are the experiences they imitate.
Wearing a problematic costume is a refusal to recognize the pain of someone else’s experience, and a refusal to acknowledge the harm people can do. When people dress up as police officers or as an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, it takes an amazing amount of cognitive dissonance to ignore the violence these jobs perform and elect to wear the costume anyways. Dressing up as a police officer means, on some level, you have to feel comfortable dressed as a murderer, dressed as a profession that is responsible for killing unarmed Black and Brown people en mass. Moreover, as the racist beliefs of many cops and ICE agents become publicized, wearing a costume is some embodiment and endorsement of those racist ideologies, just as wearing a costume of a KKK member would be.
Additionally, wearing a costume of another person essentializes their experiences into a convenient outfit, one that’s supposed to translate information about a whole, diverse group of people. It takes a tremendous amount of disrespect to treat varied and horrific experiences such as racism, incarceration, mental illness, or immigration as a monolith. Even given the general trends about how people experience phenomena such as police brutality and the immigration process, each person has an individual and textured interaction with these systems. A costume completely ignores that, unlike in real life, people don’t get to take off their identity when their experiences get too complicated or violent.
Accountability should be at the forefront of our conversations about Halloween costumes, rather than simply trying to debate if a costume is “actually” problematic. Sometimes education is public, especially when “mistakes” and their consequences are. There is a massive amount of privilege in trying to dictate how someone will educate you and in which forum, especially if you had no problem in publicizing the costume to begin with. When you mock someone’s experiences, when you make light of someone’s hurt, no one owes you a “kumbaya” moment. Undocumented immigrants and their allies don’t owe you peace or calm discussions when you dress as an ICE agent. My mentally ill self has no obligation to take you aside and do a private, restorative reconciliation if you’re trying to emulate my afflictions. Any grace that you are shown by the people you mock just demonstrates the capacity the wounded have to forgive and our willingness to facilitate growth over our well-earned vengeance. Remember that. Be grateful for that. It will always be less painful to learn from your mistakes than have to confront the violence of someone dressed as your pain.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.