What’s The Difference Between Costuming and Appropriation?

So, I own a sari. Yet, I’m white. So…what am I doing with a sari? It’s a reasonable question which can probably best be answered by the following sentence: I bought it in college. That kind of tells you everything you need to know, I think; white person leaves small, rural, very white (because the Hispanic community is rendered invisible) community, sees other cultures, thinks they are exciting, appropriates them. Retains relics of appropriation because, well, it’s a really nice sari.

And, I have to admit, some time in not too distant memory, I wore my sari as a Halloween costume. I don’t really know what I was supposed to be going as, although “race fail” might have been a good title. Just another white person who doesn’t know how to wear a sari, wearing a sari. This was before I really started, you know, thinking about racial issues, and I found some photos from that party the other day and was deeply embarrassed. I seriously thought it was ok?

One of the things often said about Halloween is that it’s an opportunity to explore taboos. This is sometimes lamented, because the taboo for women seems to be dressing up in rather scanty costumes which reinforce gender stereotypes. But it’s also a time when people can get away with things like cultural appropriation. With blackface. With all kinds of things which polite society wouldn’t tolerate most of the time.

But, here’s the thing I have to ask: Is any of this really that taboo? Are we really breaking any boundaries with what we wear on Halloween? Because I don’t think we are.

Let’s take the scanty Halloween costumes which seem to be an eternal topic of discussion. Amanda Hess is doing a whole series on terrible sexy Halloween costumes, highlighting the real bottom of the barrel. The whole front page of Sociological Images right now is also filled with examples of appropriation in Halloween costumes. Are these costumes transgressive? I would argue that they aren’t, really. In fact, they pretty much normalize social and cultural attitudes about women. Women’s bodies are expected to be on constant display, and there are some women who do dress like this on a regular basis, not just at Halloween (which gets us into an entirely different debate which I would rather not get into right now). So…how are we exploring taboos or breaking boundaries? We aren’t, we’re just giving sexism a free pass.

You could argue that Halloween is the night when some women go “I’m going to wear a sexy costume and feel empowered by it,” but is it really that empowering to be stared at all night? To know that if you are isolated from your friends, that you might get in trouble? To know that people will be leering and groping openly because they think, since it’s Halloween, that they will get a free pass? To know that if anything bad happens to you, people will blame you for it, because you were wearing “a slutty Halloween costume” and therefore deserved it? Is objectifying yourself really empowering, or just a nod to the inevitable, accepting that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?

Likewise with “exotic” or “ethnic” costumes, like, say, a white person dressing up in a sari. Are these really taboo or transgressive? I would argue, again, no, because cultural appropriation goes on constantly, especially in white culture. Whites wear traditional ethnic dress from other cultures with no context, or hack apart such dress to pick and choose the features they want. They get tattoos in languages they do not speak. They wear jewelry from other cultures without understanding its symbolism orĀ  meaning, just because they like it. They cherrypick religious beliefs to find the ones they want.

The only thing different about cultural appropriation on Halloween is that you can do it more blatantly, and you can get away with it. Well, at least among your cozy group of white friends; in a mixed-race group, you might get some eyebrows, especially if you happen to be appropriating cultural elements from the culture of someone in the group. But when you’re accustomed to seeing people appropriating your culture, are you going to make a point of calling them out or questioning them on Halloween? Probably not.

So what, some people might say, people of colour could dress up as white people for Halloween! Which, you know, they can, and maybe they do, but it doesn’t carry the same overtones as when white people dress up in saris or kimono or what have you. Because racism=privilege+power. And that’s what’s really going on here, is white people just doing whatever they want to do, knowing that they can. They’re using their privilege and power to go right on colonizing and appropriating. They’re not costuming, they’re just doing what they always do.

I’ve seen some pretty creative and interesting Halloween costumes in my time. Sometimes, the really novel ones get attention, usually if they require a lot of work. But there seems to be a disturbing level of praise for costumes which really just reinforce cultural strata and norms. What happened to costuming as an art form and exploration?