Halloween Costumes, Cultural Appropriation, and Racism.


#1

It’s that time of year again!

Spawned from a discussion here:

Based on this article:

I’m going to specifically address this:

First off, the “woman dressed as Diana Ross” is LuAnn De Lesseps, who is a 100% garbage person (e.g. she’s a “Real Housewife of New York”). You’ve already thought about her costume more than she did when she put it on, so let’s no try to discuss intent there too much.

W/r/t representation and celebration, my general response would be to let black people decide whether they feel okay with the sacrifice of curtailing representation if that’s the cost of stopping racially negative blackface. Generally, it seems like that’s the consensus that people feel the tradeoff is appropriate. (There is another, ancillary discussion about white-washing by, e.g. casting white or light-skinned black people as historical figures who had darker skin. However, that’s more a question around representation in media and standards of beauty, and so they aren’t really relevant when discussing individuals’ costumes.)

So, with a couple of caveats out of the way, let’s drill down into costumes a bit.

One general rule of thumb (with exceptions, but it’s a good start) is that it’s okay to dress up as a Person or a Job. It’s not okay to dress up as a Culture. So, dressing up as Moana or The Black Panther is probably okay. Dressing up as “an indian princess” or “African person” is probably not*. Diana Ross is a Person, we aren’t just dressing up as “black person”, so we’ve cleared that first hurdle.

The next question is “what are the important things about this person?”. For Diana Ross, we can start to make a list: She’s a singer, so we can selects period appropriate showbiz clothing or maybe a microphone. She’s also black, and is commonly associated with a large afro. So we can inspect those. The question becomes: for the purposes of this costume, is her skin tone important? When you darken your skin to adopt a costume, you’re implicitly identifying color as an important part of the costume. So, you’re saying that Diana Ross was first of all, a black person, and secondly, was a Motown singer. It’s a racist position because you’re highlighting her color as the most important part of her self that you’re adopting.

Now, in many cases, Blackness might well be important because it’s a fundamental part of the person’s identity. You could dress up as, say, Dr. King, whose blackness was a foundational aspect of his public image. The same argument can be made about Ross. So now you simply have to measure the tradeoffs of executing the costume vs. invoking the historical spectre of blackface and racial oppression. If your goal is to celebrate Diana Ross, you need to be sure that the intent celebration won’t be drowned out by the reality of historical context. And if you can’t execute the costume without changing the color of your skin, then maybe that’s just not a costume avenue that’s open to you.

Sorry, but the legacy of racism hurts us all. Let’s just hope to be so lucky that “not getting to wear a costume” is the worst thing that we experience.

Coloring your skin purple to be Thanos or Blue to be an Andorian doesn’t have those costs associated with historical racism. So, there’s no trade-off to be had there. Paint away. This also explains why the Afro (arguably almost as much of a racial signifier as skin tone) isn’t quite as charged a topic. While natural black hair has been a point of cultural contention, it doesn’t have overtones of racism as heavy as those associated with blackface.

What’s the overall takeaway though? As with everything around these kinds of issues, at the end of the day nobody is saying you “can’t” do anything. You’re free to dress up in a racist or an appropriative way. The point is just that you need to be aware that many other people are going to see it and consider it racist. It’s up to you to decide how comfortable you are with people viewing you that way, and to act accordingly.

* We can talk about the Maui costume controversy or about Pocahontas specifically in detail later


Mainstream Media in the Age of trump
#2

What about the flip side of this though?
Is it ok to just ignore the fact that she was black? I mean, certainly in the situation where race didn’t matter in society, that’d be normal… but we don’t live in that world.

I feel like it’s kind of weird to just pretend like Dianna Ross wasn’t black… like, you’re avoiding that point, because there’s something wrong with her being black or something.


#3

Yes, and see my later paragraph about the tradeoffs associated with the context of historical racism.

Sure, this means that maybe there are some things that are just off limits to white people. But costumes aren’t the only way to celebrate a person’s life and accomplishments.

Besides, sometimes signal boosting (see also LGBT rights, MeToo) is the best or only thing that allies can do.


#4

As pointed out in the other thread, I don’t think you can discuss blackface without talking about minstrelsy and the history of black caricature in American entertainment culture.

Here’s a thing. I think a white kid could wear a Diana Ross (or Barack Obama) costume that had a mask, no problem. No one would care. Painting your face black is the issue, which is because of minstrelsy. It’s also interesting how this is the question. No one asks whether it’s ok for black kids to paint their faces white so they can dress up as Abe Lincoln or Superman or whatever. Is this a conversation that comes up in families with black kids? Something that’s hard to explain?


#5

Is this even a thing? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black kid in white face, outside of a comedy.


#6

Yeah, that’s my point. I think there’s an unspoken cultural prohibition there, that is just understood. There’s no hand-wringing about it on news media because it’s under the surface. When a black kid dresses as a superhero who’s portrayed as white on page and screen, they don’t paint their faces, and no one asks why.


#7

As an aside to the specifics of the conversation above, people of color are - for the most part - fucked by the Halloween industry. This probably is fallout from horror in general being a fairly monochromatic medium (in filmed representation, generally). Look at the demographics of the zombies in The Walking Dead, then compare to the actual population demographics of Georgia, as an example.

This post applies to the industry making costumes and masks, primarily. I mean, look at the masks categorized as “Realistic Human” at this site (this is a fairly popular dedicated Halloween mask site) -

The only mask that is clearly a person of color - https://www.thehorrordome.com/collections/realistic-human-masks/products/voodoo-witch-doctor-collector-halloween-mask-hdm376

This is not isolated, either. Here’s another popular mask maker, and a search for “zombie masks” (because, let’s face it, zombies are popular) - http://www.ghoulishproductions.com/19-zombies-and-mummy

Other than one licensed mask, nary a POC to be seen.

I mean, it’s pretty conspicuous, right?


#8

Worth noting, Denzel Washington played Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing but didn’t feel the need to don whiteface in order to do it. And no one complained that he was appropriating white culture or dispossessing white actors when he did it. Context matters when it comes to race. White people pretending to be POC for entertainment, or taking roles better suited for POC, are going to face a lot more backlash than the reverse; and they should, given the history.


#9

A couple of years ago, I had someone criticize my “costume” as being racist. It was my grandfather’s traditional Korean hanbok and gat. (To be fair to that person, a lot of people think I look like I come from a Latin American country instead of having Korean ancestry.) I tried to explain that my family came from Korea and the outfit was given to me by my grandfather, but I was interrupted. “Sounds like your grandfather was a racist.”

I was done. Bye.


#10

Honestly, I’m not concerned with stuff being “off limits to white people.” That concern is trivial.

My concern is more about this question here:

I think the answer may be yes?

I mean, you admit the afro… but that’s basically just another racial characteristic, for the most part. Sure, white folks can perm their hair, but for black women, it’s their natural hair, and seeing it as a cool quality, rather than something they should try to tamp down, is good.

On some level, the fact that Dianna Ross was black is in fact important, because she was a black person who made major contributions to American culture. Kind of like black history month… we celebrate a bunch of folks who did cool stuff, and were black, in order to highlight the fact that black people have made America better.

It seems like avoiding the skin tone of Dianna Ross is doing something weird.

And yeah, I get that the woman who wore this costume didn’t think about any of this stuff. I have no idea who she is.


#11

Whew.


#12

I broadly agree with you there, it is kind of weird, but part of the justification for that weirdness is just “because race is complicated in America”.

It can be interrogated by the converse, as @Menzo and @Matt_W were above. Non-white people don’t generally feel the need to “whiteface” when dressing up as white characters or historical figures. That’s because white-ness is our cultural default. To a large degree darkening skin to dress up as somebody, even when not invoking minstrelsy, is explicitly calling out the “other-ness” of that person’s skin tone.

Maybe to put another way, the decision not to darken your skin isn’t about denying Ross’s black-ness. It’s about acknowledging her human-ness.

The celebration thing is kind of true, but I think is also kind of irrelevant in the context of Halloween costumes. While it’s certainly possible to construct an argument against white-washing either individuals’ races, or our cultural contributions in general, I think that’s just a different and broader conversation.


#13

In fact, it’s often a common approach to see someone dress as the remixed version of a character.

For example I saw someone doing cosplay of He-Man, complete with afro. Rather than try and make himself look like the white character, he leaned into it and made it his own version of the character.

In fact, and I’m not really into the scene but just catch glimpses from general nerd adjacent interests, there seems to be a lively genre of gender and race swapped versions of characters to cosplay as. I bet if I looked, and picking this since it was mentioned up thread, I could find a person dressed as ‘black Abraham Lincoln’. There’s been female Spider Man, Thor, etc. with fictional characters this doesn’t seem to cause trouble.

With real people it broadly doesn’t seem to either, with notable exceptions. Paining your skin is a definite no go. And doing a white version of an important historical figure who was a minority needs to be very carefully considered. Because it invites trouble, so if you want to do it, be prepared to answer for it. And if you have a considered answer, that probably won’t cause trouble with most people.

But maybe ask some people first, preferably someone of that minority culture. And make sure you’re clear about intent, and doing a respectful homage.

Just don’t put on blackface no matter how considered you are being.


#14

This is the unfortunate reality of where we are today.

In the specific case of Black Panther, I would say get your kid the mask. No need to paint faces.


#15

Tough row to hoe there though - which black people get to make that decision? There are 42 million African-Americans in the country. You can find a vocal minority to support or decry any position or policy you can dream up.

Seems like the cultural zeitgeist in these questions can typically only be determined by trial and almost-certain error.

Agreed. But…

As a zombie aficionado, I call foul here.

First, zombies in popular film/TV are by their nature are supposed to be anonymous beyond a variation in limb-loss. Ideally, you shouldn’t even be able to determine a gender. No one in a zombie movie should be able to say something like “Bob was killed by a Vietnamese-American zombie while trying to rescue Lisa from a Hispanic zombie.”

Second, they’re supposed to be dead and bloodless. Sure, a dark-skinned person zombified may have a slightly darker cast to their grey, mortifying skin, but death is the great racial equalizer.


#16

Yeah, but I feel like your suggestions are just ignoring those complications and trying to sidestep them with overly simplistic dogmatic rules.

But following those rules “because someone said so” doesn’t actually make anyone understand anyone else better.

And that’s cool, but imagine if someone tried to be a “white Dianna Ross”. Don’t you think they’d get some kind of criticism for THAT?


#17

If you’re talking “If zombies were real”, sure, perhaps I could agree with you. But they’re not; they’re actors and extras covered in makeup, and you can totally tell.


#18

Currently at Disney World with the family. Nephew is napping. We’re surrounded by kids in costumes and you know what, not a single child bleached their face to look white. Do you know how you can tell who they’re dressed up as? The freaking dress, or the hat, or the bandana. Black face is just a lazy racist or racist apologist. Put effort into the costume and you don’t have to pretend blackface or yellow face or any other face is suddenly an affront on white people.


#19

My sons costume this year is Poe Dameron. Or maybe Finn. Ok, it’s the jacket they wear in The Force Awakens. So his costume is the jacket and pants.

That’s all it needed. No need to try and make him look any more like the character, just give him his toy X-wing, and my nerf blaster, and say ‘go to town’. (He’s also 4.5 so he doesn’t care)

Never did anything more seem needed.


#20

My feeling is that “Diana Ross” is a pretty terrible costume idea anyway. Spangly disco dress, microphone, hair, and heels? Unless you know it’s supposed to be Diana Ross, that could be any of hundreds of singers even if you are black.