Embodying the Other: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Regret, Hope

When I was about 6 years old, I used two paper bags from the grocery store to make myself an “Indian” costume for Thanksgiving. (It was the early 90’s. “Native American” wasn’t in use among 1st graders yet.) I was, and am, very white. No one in my family thought this home-made costume was problematic. On the contrary, I remember being praised and photographed for being cute and creative.

Wearing that costume was wrong. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish someone had pointed out why this was an offensive sartorial choice.

As we near Halloween, we’re seeing the yearly outpouring of thoughtful articles about costumes, sexualization, and cultural appropriation. I hope, if I have kids, that I am able to communicate the importance of cultural respect and appropriate costume choices. Why wearing another person’s heritage is racist, violent, and erases their humanity. It reduces identity to a commodity, to something a white person can put on and, crucially, take off, because a white person has the power to remain unmarked.

It only gets worse when you consider the difference between costumes designed for women. Alden Wicker wrote recently about the intersection of sexist & racist costumes. Though not simultaneously, I, too, have been guilty of both. I hope to teach my children that “sexy” costumes are yet another way for our culture to control women and tell them that they only have value insofar as they cater to the straight male gaze.

With knowledge and respect for people of all cultural backgrounds and genders, perhaps my future children won’t make the kinds of offensive, dis-empowering mistakes I have.

I must do better than younger me, for future us.



Filed under Childhood, Commodification, Gender Trouble, Power, Racism

2 responses to “Embodying the Other: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Regret, Hope

  1. What’s always fascinated me about Halloween and its companion Carnival because both to my mind involve reversals and transgression. They’re both supposed to be about crossing social and spiritual boundaries, where the powerful and powerless change places, where high and low get flipped. The problem is contemporary culture is that this reversal has become, like everything else, a commodity. They’ve become marketing tools, ways to push this trend or that film. There’s so much less transgression of spiritual boundaries: the dead, ghosts, demons, and other supernatural creatures, or the mockery of the powerful such as the rich and political leaders.These days the mockery gets directed socially downward–making fun of those without economic and social power rather than those who already have it. Of course, a huge role in this is that costumes are much more often *bought* rather than *made.* It makes me think that I should start dressing up for Halloween again as I give out candy or take my young ones trick or treating. I’m thinking it would be fun to go as Pope Francis or a priest, maybe a disgraced televangelist or politician. I’m wondering whether I can steer my kids in that direction…

    As for your 6-year-old self, I think you should give her a pass. It’s the nature of children to appropriate *everything,* and it’s the responsibility of elders to let them know wht the boundaries for that ought to be. Now if you were to don that same costume for this coming Saturday night, you’d have a lot of explaining to do (and not just because it probably would be inappropriately ill fitting).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: They say you should have a newsletter… | Rachel Sona Reed

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