take back the halloween!

by special correspondent Thea Lim

Thanks to the Toronto Asian Arts Freedom School for helping me figure out just why I have a hard time with Halloween, and for allowing me to share our strategies with Racialicious!

white rasta

I’m a Halloween party pooper. I do a dismal job of dressing up. My last costume consisted of a baseball hat with googly eyes and mouse ears. I’ve only given out candy once. Some years I’ve even hidden upstairs in the dark, ashamed of my lack of candy, pumpkin and sense of fun.

I’ve always felt like a bit of a jerk for not participating in the festivities. It doesn’t come that naturally to me – I spent most of my childhood in a country where Halloween wasn’t really celebrated, except as a club night. But since I moved back to North America 8 years ago, Halloween has seemed more like an obligation than a party zone, and every year I fail to rise to the challenge.

A year ago a new friend pointed out to me something that Angry Asian Man nicely illustrated on this here blog a few weeks ago: Halloween is not just a time to wear fake blood and fishnets, it’s also…racist!

white mexican

Mainstream North American culture likes to define itself as cultureless, but Halloween is a very cultural practice. Not only is it a little weird (Just look at it from the point of view of an outsider. Send your kids out to strangers’ houses and tell them to ask for candy? Decorate your house like a graveyard? Dress up like a sexy version of a public health worker?) it is also based on difference – the point of Halloween is to dress up as “something different.” So how do people who are often made to feel visually different – you know, like people of colour – experience Halloween? The average Halloween costume tells us a lot about what we culturally consider to be abnormal.

It tells us that dressing up in an overtly sexy way is taboo – in other words, that we’re a pretty sex-negative people. It tells us that we are obsessed with strict gender categories – because most little boys and girls have to choose very gender-coded costumes, but also because for many young people Halloween is the one time they can experiment with gender in a socially sanctioned way.

And if dressing up as “something different” can typically involve wearing geisha make-up, a Native headdress, bling, or a turban, Halloween tells us that our cultural norm is a middle-class, North American, white person.

white china doll

Maybe it’s not surprising then, that those of us who are made to feel like we are visually different, or those of us who feel culturally marginalised by mainstream North American culture (and we’re prolly the same people who are acutely aware that North American cultures are very real, and very defineable), feel uncomfortable, guilty, angry or just plain sad at Halloween.

Two weeks ago I co-facilitated an anti-racist Halloween workshop for the Toronto Asian Arts Freedom School. And the experience made me feel like less of a funless, googly-hat-wearing, Halloween loser.

Our workshop was attended primarily by 1st and 2nd generation Canadian Asian youth, and I was surprised and relieved to hear many people saying some of the things that I’d felt, but never quite been able to articulate. We talked about how as kids we’d felt uncomfortable or silly dressing up at Halloween; that the idea of dressing up as “something different” didn’t compute, because every day we felt like “something different.” Or that when we tried to imagine ourselves as a traditional costume (like a firefighter or a cheerleader – costumes that are very gendered and raced) it never seemed to fit. It’s true that the few times I have dressed up, it’s always been as a non-human thing – like a tomato, carrot or a bee (that was my agricultural stage).

People of colour – especially those who grew up or live racially isolated – have a fear of being conspicuous. As much as I like attention, I also devote massive energy to trying to blend in. This effects my personality and how I present myself on a fundamental level. The regular attempt to neutralise your race is a basic part of living as a person of colour in a racist culture.

I wasn’t able to pin down why the holiday where you’re supposed to stand out gives me a serious case of the heebiegeebies, until I gave that workshop. It was totally enlightening to hear how much other Freedom Schoolers related; how much Halloween turned our fears of conspicuousness all the way up. You don’t dress up because you have a phobia of standing out; you don’t wanna stand out; this collective project to stand out freaks you out. But when you don’t dress up, you stand out. It’s enough to drive anyone under the bed until Nov 1st.

white muslim terrorist

Halloween is not racist in and of itself. Many cultures have some form of Halloween, like the Mexican Day of the Dead, or the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Celebrating Halloween doesn’t have to be a racist act. In fact, I know many people of colour (anti-racist people of colour!) who love Halloween. The main question that we tried to answer in our workshop, was this: even if sometimes we are made to feel as if we don’t fit into the mainstream idea of what a North American is, we still are North Americans – and as a North American holiday, Halloween is ours too. So how can we take it back?

Here are four ideas we came up with:

1) Go as an aspect of my identity amplified

Sure I’m a mixed race person of colour, and a huge part of my identity stems from that. But I get tired of being boiled down to only that. Sometimes I feel like the parts of my identity that have nothing to do with my racial/cultural identity are less interesting, exotic or sexy to the people around me.

One of our participants had the idea that it might be fun to dress up as something that represented our personal cultures (i.e. the culture of me! the unique combination of everything that has happened to me). For example, if you’re a chronically late person, you could wear an enormous, broken wrist-watch. Personally I have an intense (and ok, strange) hatred of wrinkled or bunchy bed covers. I could go dressed up as an immaculate pillow case.

2) Go as a dead version of a racial stereotype

My hair stylist (who is East Asian) works in one of the poshest salons in town (but gives me a large discount so I can justify my coiff). Last year she dressed up in full geisha regalia – except she had a massive bullet wound on her forehead. To me the geisha costume represents a lot of the way East Asian women are sexualised in North America – expected to be submissive and sexually available. There was something ghoulishly satisfying about seeing it paired with such unsettling gore. I liked the idea of taking something that represents the way we’ve been oppressed, and then putting a gross, unappetizing spin on it.

3) A costume that somehow indicates that cultural clothes are not a costume

Some of our participants talked about how, as children, Halloween was the only time they could wear their cultural clothes to school without getting full-out mocked. What effect does it have on us that the only time we can be ourselves, is when others are dressing up as the weirdest thing they can think of?

The reason why “ethnic costumes” are so problematic is because they posit a cultural identity as a costume – they compress the complexity and intricacy of an entire culture into dress-up; into something that anyone (or really, usually someone with class and race privilege) has the right to use for the most superficial purposes.

One of our participants kicked around the idea of going dressed up in a sari, but with a sign that said “This is not a costume.” Or to be less literal: wear your cultural clothes for a week leading up to Halloween, and then wear jeans and a t-shirt on Halloween itself.

4) Throw a “you can not wear a costume” party

I think this was my favourite. Maybe, at least right now, Halloween night just isn’t a safe place for sensitive, anti-racist folks. So throw your own anti-racist October 31st party, and for people like me who feel downhearted whenever they try to think of an acceptable Halloween costume, make it a party where you don’t have to dress up if you don’t want to.

Have a safe and anti-racist Halloween. It’s seriously more fun than hiding upstairs.