Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween, Offensive Costumes & Honoring our Ancestors

As the end of October draws near and we move into November and the colder, darker months of the year (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), death is all around us.  Where I live the leaves turn fiery shades of red, orange, and yellow and fall to the ground. The killing frost turns our gardens from vibrant green to shades of brown and black. Kitchens are (hopefully) abundant with apples and winter squash. Canadian geese depart, flying south for the winter. Even if our cupboards are full with food to last us through the snowstorms and other uncertainties of winter, in our bones we remember a sense of scarcity, the threat of not making it through the barren months of the year. It's the season of grief and of letting go. And in this time of death, two cultures separated by an ocean and a sea celebrate the ancestors.

In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated only a day or two after Ireland's Samhain (pronounced sow-en), the pagan roots of the modern day Halloween. Personally I was not raised with these traditions. I dressed up as monsters and genies for Halloween, carved pumpkins, and went to my old babysitter's for popcorn balls and my neighbor's for candied apples. I was unaware that these festivities, though they changed over time, were derived from traditions from my own ancestry.

Beginning to attend Samhain gatherings and seeing the connections between the autumn season of loss and letting go, honoring my ancestors at this time just felt right. Once my grandmother and then my grandfather, and most recently my herbal teacher, passed through to the other side, honoring my ancestors became much more tangible for me. Rather than lighting candles for those whom I had never met, I now created altars with their photos, surrounded by objects of theirs that were left to me or that I knew that they would like. Since both Grammy and Pop-pop had a sweet tooth, I leave them chocolates and candies. During Samhain, it's said that the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest than all other times of the year and it's common for our ancestors to visit us in dreams. This is a time of remembrance, grief, and celebration. In a culture that fears death and most often avoids it altogether, creating space to honor our beloved dead feels healing, grounding, and timeless to me. Though Dia de los Muertos celebrations are new to me, it seems that there are strong similarities between these celebrations and Samhain. From what I've been told and shown, people in Mexico (and other countries as well, but most of my friends who celebrate Dia de los Muertos are from Mexico) create gorgeous altars filled with cempasúchil (Tagetes marigolds, also known as 'Flor de Muerto' or Flower of Death) and other flowers, sugar skulls, photos, candles, and other objects to remember and honor loved ones who have died. Like Samhain, this is a time of both reverence and celebration.

Dia de los Muertos altars.

Now, these practices are in stark contrast to mainstream U.S. Halloween culture. At a time where many people honor those who have gone before us and shaped who we are today - both those directly in our lives and those who lived many generations ago long before we arrived - common sights that directly disrespect the cultures and peoples that many of us descend from can cut particularly deep. Ridiculous Halloween decorations such as this:

Decoration of a witch who's
flown into a telephone pole.

may provide entertainment for some, for me it reminds me of witch burnings. It reminds me that there is much of my heritage that I did not receive - that's been lost forever - as it was burned up with those who were systematically targeted, tortured, and executed by the many-thousands or millions, depending on the source. (See Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, 1973. Text here. This is just one time period in one place on the planet, witch-hunts have happened in many times and places.)  Though witches historically have been, and continue to be, healers/herbalists in their communities, in stories, films, and Halloween costumes, they are portrayed as ugly, mean and sometimes green-faced old women.  Problematic representation for many reasons - ie anti-woman, ageist, anti-pagan.

Last year during Halloween-Samhain-Dia de los Muertos-time I saw Colorlines' "Seven Racist Costumes to Avoid This Halloween" post, which validating my gut-reactions to costumes such as "Afro" wigs, dressing as "a Mexican" or "Redneck," not to mention Blackface.  These are a few examples of the costumes that perpetuate racist and classist ideas - "exoticizing" entire groups of people, reinforcing and perpetuating stereotypes, and making light of the very real and ugly realities of racism and classism in this country. Just glancing briefly over those seven examples fills my mind with stories and images - Eurocentric ideals of beauty, Black women forced to straighten their hair to keep a job and/or be taken seriously while non-Black folks try on Afro wigs just for fun, "White trash" parties at my college where rich white kids would act out what they thought poor white folks did/ate/talked like, Life-threatening border crossing through lands that used to all be part of Mexico and indigenous long before that, Indigenous groups denied sovereignty and the right to practice their spiritual traditions (check out Native Appropriations: But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?), The history of blackface and lynching in the U.S., I could go on and on...

That this season is a time for honoring the lives of our ancestors and their struggles, makes these costumes even more offensive. That this country has done little to remedy in any way the legacy of colonization, slavery, stolen land, and genocide that it was founded upon, how can anyone possibly dismiss these concerns, telling others to "lighten up" and "stop making a big deal out of nothing." These costumes are just one visual manifestation of the poison of racism (and classism, xenophobia, sexism, etc.), and the discussions around them can veer off into a debate on so-called free speech that lacks any sense of history and accountability, or they can help to raise difficult, painful, and potentially liberating conversations around power, privilege, representation, culture, history, and ancestry. (To read some dialogue, see Can Your Halloween Costume Be Racist, Even If You Aren’t?)

In response to Blackface, Geisha, Indian/Native American, Middle Easterners-as-terrorists, and other offensive costumes that perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation, a student group at Ohio University, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (S.T.A.R.S.) launched a We are a Culture, Not a Costume campaign:

When exploring difficult topics, it's often easy to get lost in words, where personal stories get drowned out or twisted by media misrepresentation and misinformation, and statistics and studies are used to justify and uphold unexamined and racist perspectives. These images from the campaign get straight to the heart of what is so offensive about racist costumes and the entitlement/defensiveness that is often part of the reaction to these issues being raised. In a culture where a disproportionate number of people of color are targeted by law enforcement/the school-to-prison pipeline/the prison industrial complex, where the mainstream media usually tokenizes people of color (the foreign Asian student, the Arab terrorist, the dangerous Black man, the submissive Asian woman, etc.) or excludes them altogether, and where white people/corporations profit off of the culture of communities of colors, racism is an explosive topic.

As a white person, I can only speak to other white folks on this matter. There's no right thing to say about all this and there's no way to fix it all overnight. What I've found the most helpful is to, first, listen. When someone's upset about something that you've said or done, especially if that person is part of an oppressed group (someone who is a person of color, has a disability, or is working-class, queer, transgender, etc.) and you're part of a privileged group (white, straight, cis-gender (non-transgender), (temporarily) able-bodied, middle/upper-class, etc.), just start by listening. It's common to become reactive and want to explain what you did. There's this cultural belief that if you didn't intend to cause harm that you're somehow automatically absolved from taking responsibility for the harm your words or actions may cause. This is not the case. Freedom of speech does not mean being able to do or say what you want without any kind of accountability. It's easy to get defensive and write someone off as being over-sensitive or angry.  However, in a culture that encourages and values the voices of certain people (the privileged groups listed above) while excluding and silencing others (the oppressed groups above), we've got some serious self-reflection and re-education to do.  And sometimes it can feel endless and overwhelming.  However, though we may not be commonly taught about it and it may sometimes be difficult to remember, there's a long legacy of resistance of people from all ethnicities/ancestries. For me, part of honoring my ancestors includes actively joining the many who are working for racial justice, a movement that stretches back through time and forward into the future.


For those who are interested in listening, learning, and digging deeper, I suggest these two books that I've learned a lot from and am re-reading:  "Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum and  Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel.

Unsure if your Halloween costume idea might be offensive?  Check out this poster from Hampshire (College) Halloween:

Have you been called-out for wearing an offensive/racist costume?!  Here' s a great video by Chescaleigh on how to apologize. 

Day of The Dead Pilgrimage/Peregrinación del Día de Los Muertos ~Remembering the Dead, a project of Coalición de Derechos Humanos.  "Each year on the Day of the Dead we host a pilgrimage to commemorate the migrant lives lost in the desert. We want to ensure we honor the unidentified, to say the names of those who have been named, and, to not forget. We will walk with crosses, each of which represents the number of remains found in the Arizona desert and recorded by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office."   2017 event info here.

Photo by Brenda Norrell

"Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?" Flowchart by College Humor. 
Click on this link to see a larger version.


  1. thanks, dana. this is a great essay. i'm sharing it on FB.

  2. Great article. I plan to share it next Halloween.