Appropriation doesn’t make a good costume

At Halloween, there will inevitably be one person who decides to be ‘edgy’ and come dressed as the twin towers, Jimmy Saville, Robin Williams, or something otherwise brazenly crass and insensitive. It does not take a particularly sensitive soul to discern that these costumes are not alright. However, for a good deal of people it is not always immediately obvious why Zulu warrior, sexy Ebola nurse or ISIS insurgent are not particularly tasteful costume options. Thankfully last week the crew at EUSA put together a colourful flowchart to explain the apparently puzzling issue of “is your Halloween costume offensive?”

Whilst critics might argue that this is just another example of EUSA’s arbitrary and holier-than-thou ‘morality policing’ slant, one can hardly contend that they are encroaching on your liberty by suggesting that you shouldn’t ‘black-up’ or wear a swastika. Again, most of the costumes that EUSA’s helpful chart advises against are fairly common sense and merit little debate at all. The notoriety of symbolism and subject sensitivity are also worth considering, for instance very few will immediately take offence at a Nero doppelganger despite his nefarious antics, whereas blackface is something instantly recognisable and hurtful to so many.  Cultural appropriation does not apply equally to every example of culture exchange; dressing up as Dracula is unlikely to offend an average Transylvanian. Offense stems from much more than just copying another culture’s tradition, folklore or symbolism.

An often-touted case study on cultural appropriation tends to be the wearing of Native American headdresses by college students in search of something to spice up their evening getup. This is generally held as offensive because it shows the total reduction of a people to one token object. The wearer’s understanding of the struggles of Native Americans typically extends as far as a Disney informed narrative of talking critters, reverence for mother Earth and charming colonialist husbands – rather than systemic massacre, exploitation and erasure.  The bleary eyed fresher sporting a crown of feathers whilst roaring along to Robin Thicke in the Hive represents the final reduction of indigenous American peoples to little more than an accessory.

Very few would argue that dark-humour is something that should be policed, or that we should not be enjoying the wealth of diversity that has come about as a result of the mingling of cultures.  Instead it is all about context and sensitivity – for instance few would argue that coming along dressed as Robespierre represents a total debasement of the French, that coming as a windmill somehow demeans the Dutch or that being dressed as awful cuisine would outrage the British. None of these costumes represents the resurrection of painful memories or the transformation of tragedy into caricature. In order to avoid offence, all most need to do before heading out on the town for their spooky shenanigans is to look in the mirror and ask “am I being an insensitive tool?”

If EUSA are focusing their efforts on maintaining a safe-space for students then making sure that nobody shows up to Teviot dressed as a racial caricature seems like common sense. All this should involve is door staff telling questionably garbed party animals to go home and rethink their costume. Although the policing of dress might feel like an example of “political correctness” to some, it is important to remember that the last thing anyone wants on a night out is to be faced by a reminder of a very painful topic.

Seeing someone parading around as a ‘hilarious’ take on National Socialist fashion, or a spear-touting jungle man could very easily, and wholly understandably, bring deep and painful offense to sections of the student body.

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