What makes a Halloween costume offensive? In Baltimore, debate rages on

For Shaunice White, it’s pretty clear. Unless you’re an American Indian, donning a headdress and war paint for Halloween is shameful. Unless you’re a Mexican, putting on a fake mustache and a sombrero is shameful. Unless you’re from Polynesia, dressing as a South Seas demigod, complete with darkened skin and tattoos, is shameful.

“It’s not a costume, it’s a culture,” said White, a junior and one of about a dozen students who gathered in a room at Notre Dame of Maryland University Wednesday afternoon to discuss what makes for an inappropriate Halloween costume. “You cannot take a culture, put it into a costume and walk around with it. That’s so disrespectful… If it’s not your culture, do not dress up.”

Less than a week before children and adults all over the country will be donning costumes meant to transform them into someone (or something) else, the debate over what constitutes an offensive Halloween costume, and how much people should care, rages on.

For many, like these Baltimore college students, the issue is pretty simple: Avoid costumes that borrow from another culture, often exaggerating traits or customs held dear; stick with superheroes, vampires and zombies.

“These costumes serve to dehumanize the populations that they depict,” said sophomore Victoria Latawiec. “You’re reducing a culture or a population or an identity to a punchline.”

Nonsense, critics counter. It’s Halloween, and dressing up like an Indian chief or a Rastafarian or a Himalayan Sherpa is just having fun. No political or cultural statement is intended, and none should be implied.

“White people, it appears, aren’t allowed to dress as empowered Polynesian princesses. Because this will supposedly offend all your Polynesian neighbors,” film critic and essayist Kyle Smith wrote in the National Review, reacting to a piece published earlier this year from the editors of Redbook, advising mothers not to let their daughters dress up as the title character of Disney’s “Moana.”

“It seems more likely,” Smith wrote, “that almost no one will be offended, and if anyone is, it’ll be the kinds of people who are offended by everything, all of the time."

In recent years, choosing a costume for Halloween has been fraught with potential peril. Sometimes, it’s a matter of taste: dressing up as dead celebrities, for instance, could be offensive; so could touching on such hot-button political issues as President Trump’s proposed border wall (one online vendor is even offering such a costume) or the crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

But bad taste is one thing, and what constitutes it varies from person to person, region to region. Far more perilous, easier to recognize and mobilize against is the issue of negative cultural appropriation, taking the earmarks of a culture not your own and using — or misusing — them for your own profit or amusement.

“That’s been part of our American history, taking another culture and exploiting it, when the culture’s not our own,” says Neal Lester, a professor of English at Arizona State University and director of that school’s Project Humanities, which hosts an annual symposium on cultural appropriation.

Such insensitivity, on the part of a dominant culture lording it over another culture, is clearly insulting, he says. And Lester has no patience for those who insist it’s only Halloween, or only a child’s costume, or that no offense is intended. Don’t tell him to lighten up, he says.

“That, to me, is the embodiment of people not getting it,” he says. ”When you live this every day, that is not a position, to lighten up.”

Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordham Law School and author of “Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law,” believes that people should strive to fully understand other cultures. Marginalizing them by making them an object of amusement at Halloween doesn’t come close to doing the trick, she says. And the wishes of that other culture deserve to be respected.

“The bottom line is, if you really admire another culture, then you want to learn just as much about that culture as you can,” she says. “And you should listen when that culture makes a consensus statement about what should and should not be commodified.”

The issue of Halloween costumes on college and university campuses exploded into the national consciousness in 2015, after Yale University circulated a memo suggesting guidelines students should follow in their choice of Halloween costume. Two faculty members, a husband and wife living at Yale’s Silliman College, came under fire after one of them countered with an email suggesting students could be left to make their own decisions regarding Halloween costumes, without the need for guidance from university officials.

Debate over that letter, and some students’ charges that its author was being racially insensitive, became heated. One widely circulated video showed students confronting one of the professors and demanding an apology, insisting they felt threatened by the idea of giving students the latitude the email suggested.

At Goucher College, students from the school’s Center for Race Equity and Identity will staff a table in the library Friday for students looking to talk about their costume choice and its ramifications.

“We encourage students to engage in discussions such as this,” says Bryan Coker, Goucher’s vice president and dean of students. “This is not about policing. It really is about education and discussion, about encouraging students to think about their choices.”

Loyola University Maryland does not address the subject of cultural sensitivity in one’s costume choice specifically, spokeswoman Stephanie Weaver said, but urges students to be aware of it.

“We do ask people to think about their costume choice,” Weaver said. “We remind them that they do have to think of others, as well.”

Wednesday’s discussion at Notre Dame was not in reaction to any particular incident, school spokeswoman Anne Wozniak said. In fact, it was the regular meeting of the school's Philosophy Club, a student-run organization that gets together to discuss issues and moral stances. (A recent discussion for instance, centered on whether it was always right to kill a zombie; opinions varied.)

The students, a mix of races and ethnicities, agreed that people need to be sensitive to other cultures when choosing a Halloween costume. And don’t try to dodge the issue by saying you’re really honoring the culture, several insisted. “If you are appreciating a culture, would you be dressing up as it for Halloween?” asked senior Marquel Hayes.

Added sophomore Sierra Perdue, “It inherently silences the groups that it’s going against… It’s saying, ‘This is something funny to me, your hardships are funny to me.’ They’re trivializing it.”

Even a cursory look at Halloween costumes available online reveal all manner of outfits that could be deemed, at best, culturally insensitive. Thankfully, the days of going around in blackface seem largely in the past, but American Indian costumes are omnipresent, from warrior chiefs with elaborate headdresses to sexy squaws in miniskirts and cleavage-enhancing tops. Japanese kimonos, Mexican ponchos, Muslim hijabs — all are readily available. One especially clueless outfitter even offered an Anne Frank costume for little girls.

Several celebrities have gotten in trouble in recent years for sporting Halloween costumes that invoke another culture. In 2013, Julianne Hough was photographed on her way to a Halloween party dressed as a character from “Orange Is the New Black,” in a costume that included blackface ("It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way," Hough said later). Chris Brown once posted a photo on Instagram of him and some friends dressed as terrorists, complete with turbans and fake beards. Heidi Klum once dressed as the Hindu deity Kali.

“Riverdale” star Lili Reinhart was slammed earlier this year for posting a photo on Twitter of an idea she had for a costume “inspired by the color of my soul” — a demon, covered in a black body suit and black paint that reminded some of blackface. “I apologize,” she wrote after deleting the earlier tweet. “Never meant any harm. I can see how it could have been misinterpreted.”

For some, such protests against something as seemingly trivial as a Halloween costume should be dismissed out of hand. In a 2016 piece headlined “Stop Being So Sensitive — It’s Only a Halloween Costume” and posted on time.com, Jim Norton, co-host of SiriusXM’s “Jim Norton and Sam Roberts Show” and co-host of UFC Unfiltered, wrote, “I look forward to the day in the not-so-distant future when the only acceptable Halloween costume will be to tape a balloon to your head and tell people you’re a happy, helpful, non-binary balloon person operating in a safe space.”

But being sensitive to another’s feelings is never a bad thing, the students assembled at Notre Dame agreed among themselves. And if that means having your child go trick-or-treating as Dracula instead of Pocahontas, or going to a Halloween party dressed as Wonder Woman instead of a Hindu deity, well, OK.

“Free speech is often used as an excuse to just be horrible and incredibly insensitive,” said senior Robyn Githui. Agreed freshman Chelsea Boyd, “It’s harmful if somebody says that it’s harmful.”

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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