Imitation or mockery: A perspective on the Halloween costume debate

As a child, Halloween was always a thrilling night: the decorations, the jump scares, and, most of all, the chance to be whatever I could fathom, gave my sugar high, preteen self the ultimate platform for creativity. It was the night to let my imagination soar because as long as I could find, or make, the costume, I could pretend to be anything in the universe. I was an elephant, a clown, an alien, a doctor, a jack-o-lantern, and at one point, even Kermit the Frog. They were perfectly innocent costumes made for a child’s entertainment.

But what about the Statue of Liberty costume I wore to my preschool Halloween parade, or the Uncle Sam outfit I rocked with blue and red braces in secondary school? Would Americans be offended by a young Mexican girl dressing up as their symbols of patriotism, as some assume Mexicans are offended when people dress up as Pancho Villa? To be perfectly honest, this thought did not cross my mind until I arrived at Colby and saw posters around campus asking students not to attempt to represent a culture for their own Halloween amusement; claiming that cultural appropriation is demeaning towards the imitated group and makes a jest out of the stigma surrounding said group.

However, imitation is not necessarily mockery, and the difference between the two lies in the intent of the disguised. For instance, this weekend I saw several “bad hombres” – male Colby students dressed in ponchos and sombreros following Donald Trump around campus – whose costumes were in no way offensive to me, one of three Mexican students on campus. In fact, I found it witty that their disguises satirized a political candidate’s remarks. Similarly, a friend recently commented on how he thought he would dress up as “a Mexican” for Halloween, and while I offered him my fake mustaches and cultural attire, other students at our table were taken aback and visibly uncomfortable.

I certainly cannot speak on behalf of every Mexican, and even less so on behalf of any non-American group, but from my first-hand experiences and from what I hear friends of the international community comment on, there seems to be an oversensitivity regarding cultural appropriation on that is held not by the appropriated, but by the bystander. Perhaps this is rooted in the atmosphere of political correctness that is currently growing in the United States, but is generally unseen abroad. Cultural appropriation is antithetical to political correctness, for it is susceptible to highlighting stereotypes. For the most part, today’s young adults are extremely mindful of the ripple effect their actions can elicit, to an almost self-conscious degree. The constant concern over what others will think or how others will interpret our  demeanor consumes us with the fear of being offensive. And when we find someone who is not mindful, it precipitates feelings of anger or even offense. In my opinion, however, people should not feel the need to restrain, prune, or silence an opinion out of fear of offending someone, so long as they recognize and respect the opposing viewpoints. Similarly, people should be able to dress up as whatever they want for Halloween, so long as they know the reality of the culture or person they are imitating and are aware that their costume is not one that encompasses the entirety (or at times even a large portion) of the culture it is associated with. Excluding time-sensitive subjects or issues of great historical disruption, disguising oneself as a figure of a foreign culture should not be shamed if it is done with a lively, not oppressive or patronizing intention.

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