Ignorance is not bliss, Halloween costumes scratch surface of deep cultural insensitivity

By Juliana Piacentini || Contributing Writer

With the approach of Halloween weekend, fondly known as “Halloweekend” to the average college student, comes the excitement of making plans with friends, gorging on Halloween candy, and preparing a costume. For me, finding the perfect costume is what Halloween is all about. Dressing up in a ridiculous outfit or as a beloved character is not just suggested but highly encouraged as well. That’s what makes Halloween such a unique and thrilling time of year. For one night, you feel like you can be anything you want to be. And it’s all fun and games, until it’s not.

The word “anything” implies a total freedom in costume choice. But with this freedom comes a very important factor to consider: cultural sensitivity. There are a number of “costumes” that are donned faithfully year after year that have some serious implications. Such attire is often fashioned from perceived stereotypes of other cultures. Common titles of costumes such as these include “Native American Princess,” “Mexican Man,” or “Geisha Girl.” Another general example is when people choose to put on “blackface” when dressed up as an inmate, thug, or rapper. These costumes might seem blatantly stereotypical (make no mistake – they are), yet for some reason they are still bought and sold, they are still excessively searchable on Google, and are still provided with a multitude of racist choices. That’s not where it ends, either. There are still those who create bigoted costumes, and fashion them themselves, without ever questioning their implications or their cultural insensitivity.

This is not a new phenomenon. These costumes are used every year, sparking controversy wherever they appear. Sometimes even celebrities add to the perpetuation of racist stereotypes in Halloween costumes, making them appear culturally acceptable and thus, increasing their popularity. For example, in 2013 the famous actress and dancer Julianne Hough dressed up as Crazy Eyes, an African-American character on the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black, and even went so far as to put on blackface to complete her look. More recently, this Halloween Hilary Duff and her boyfriend dressed in “Sexy Pilgrim” and “Native American Chief” costumes. These are merely a couple of examples out of many.

The Franklin & Marshall campus witnessed this form of cultural insensitivity this Halloween. While it was not the only occurrence, nor even the first in F&M’s history, it was still shocking and upsetting to so many of us in the F&M community. Watching our student body face this issue made me wonder, why does this happen?

In my opinion, it really boils down to one thing: ignorance. People do not fully understand that what they are doing is wrong or severely hurtful to others around them. They don their costumes with the privilege of not having to think about how it might be perceived by others or how it might make others feel. If it doesn’t offend them, they assume it won’t offend others, and when it does, they become surprised and defensive. It seems as though somehow they justify their actions as being okay in their minds based solely on the fact they didn’t blatantly intend to offend others. But the problem is that it isn’t okay, it isn’t justifiable. No one has the right to tell someone they shouldn’t be offended by something even if it wasn’t meant to cause offense. Regardless of your intentions, what you say and what you do can have negative effects on others.

Ignorance is an issue that goes way beyond insensitive Halloween costumes. It applies to anything thought, spoken, or done. Saying that people “didn’t know any better” or “didn’t think it would be offensive” is not an excuse or a justification. Ignorance is the problem, but it is not an excuse. And acknowledging ignorance is uncomfortable, but completely necessary nonetheless. I grew up in a town that was >99% white. Less than one percent of anyone you will meet in my hometown is any minority. I came to F&M not understanding or accepting white privilege, cultural appropriation, micro-aggressions, and a slew of other realities. I came to F&M ignorant to so many social issues that plague our society every day. It sucks to admit that you’re ignorant or own up to your privilege. It’s hard to change how you perceive the world and others around you. But these realizations are crucial to combating social issues that are so prevalent on campus and in our country. They are a fundamental aspect of the true academic experience.

College is more than just attending classes, getting a job, or finding lifetime friends. Your academic experience should expand your worldview. It should provide the opportunity to learn and to know better. It should provide the atmosphere to more deeply understand the people around you, and to distinguish what is hurtful and why. There are actions we can all take, such as participating in on-campus forums, reading and writing articles to create an intellectual and respectful dialogue, and listening to others of different backgrounds to really hear what they have to say and not just to respond with your ideas. These actions will allow you to expand and grow as a person, take control of the situation, and help fight the insensitivity. It takes time and effort, but the importance of being active and becoming aware is invaluable. It will bring us all closer together as a community.

So think about the other people around you. Look past yourself. Don’t be content with using ignorance as an excuse, and most importantly, continue to learn. The process is never over. There are things that I continue to learn from the people around me every day because I don’t know everything and never will–but I can still progress and become a better, more knowledgeable person for myself and for the world around me. Take the time and make the effort, even if it starts with something as small as rethinking a Halloween costume.

Senior Juliana Piacentini is a contributing writer. Her email is jpiacent@fandm.edu.

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“We’re a culture, not a costume campaign,” photo courtesy of chicagomonitor.com

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