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Talking About Halloween

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(William Herman)– One of the worst feelings I know is being left outside in the cold. It’s even worse when people you know sit warmly inside, yet their doors remain closed to your chattering teeth and numbing fingertips.

Like every other time of year, this Halloween, we need to consider what speech—both vocal and costumed—may leave members of our communities outside in the cold. Just like spoken derogatory terms harm and offend, so do the messages behind certain costumes. By taking care to consider these messages, we open our doors to understanding and warmth.

But it’s not always easy to tell what offends and what doesn’t. What is offensive to one is not necessarily offensive to another. Some costumes are blatantly racist or misogynistic, like this one, or this one. But other costumes walk a much finer line.

Last Friday at Hampshire Halloween, I impersonated Riff Raff, an eccentric, harlequin tattooed, gold-chained walking irony who calls himself a rapper. I believe Riff Raff represents the crisis found in modern hip-hop—and perhaps in all evolving arts—between traditional aesthetics and the anti-aesthetics of radical originality. While I vehemently oppose many of the views his lyrics suggest, I find his iconography and charisma highly compelling. There’s something fresh about his total willingness to be a modern-day jester in the court of public hip-hop discourse. I thought my costume was innocuously silly at its worst, and pseudo-intellectually compelling, at its most ambitious,

It consisted of: pink “diamond” studded grillz, plastic bling, and a combined flat-brim hat and cornrow wig. After bumping to some trap bass by Foie Gras and subsequently soaking this Raffian apparel with my prodigious sweating abilities, I went to take a break inside one of the Hampshire dormitory common areas. There, I had an unsettling encounter.

While in the midst of a conversation with my friends, a Hampshire student approached me and asked if she could speak with me for a second. I like making new friends, so I said sure. I don’t remember how exactly she started, but all was polite and respectful. She shook my hand when I gave her my name. Then it went like this:

“Do you know what those locks represent?”

“No.”

“I am from Jamaica, and I want you to know that those locks have deep cultural significance,” referring to my wig, which I intended to be cornrows, not dreadlocks.

“Wow. That’s really cool—,” I was about to ask her to elaborate, but she cut me off.

“I want you to know that, as a human being to a human being, I find your costume highly offensive. I am saying this for your own benefit because I don’t want someone to come berate you on this campus. It is highly offensive.”

“I’m really sorry that you’re offended.”

“Read this.” She gave me a flyer about racially offensive Halloween costumes. “Bye.”

I felt horrible. I thought I had done my due diligence in considering the potential offensiveness of my costume. I thought it was safe to bring into a public space. But apparently confusion from my wig caused her to perceive that I was culturally appropriating a religious symbol of Rastafarianism. As I walked away, I took out my phone to Amazon search for cornrow wigs, which might more clearly portray the intended hairstyle. (Riff Raff wears cornrows).

Then the truly unsettling encounter occurred. The woman returned, this time with a friend, who was wearing a prisoner costume.

“Excuse me?!”

“Hello.”

“Did you not just hear what my cousin said to you? That is highly offensive. You are a white male, coming from a place of privilege, appropriating the culture of the minority.”

At this point, I should have turned back to my circle of friends, knowing that this student was just looking to pick a fight. But there was something fundamentally perverted about her assumptions of race, gender identity, class, and history that I had a hard time letting go.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t get your name.”

“I didn’t give it to you.”

“Well, how do you know I am white? Or that I identify as a male?”

“Don’t you?”

“It’s irrelevant. I’m sorry, but you don’t know me. You don’t know whether I am white, whether I am a man, or whether I come from a place of economic privilege. The place I am coming from is a place of respect because I am listening to what you have to say. But when you assume things about me based on appearance, I don’t feel respected.”

From there, this woman proceeded to aggressively berate me about me being a white man from a place of privilege and my offensive appropriation of her culture. (While I do identify as a male, I am Jewish, which is a part of my identity that I don’t consider to be Anglo-Saxon “white.”)

I feel bad that my costume offended those two Hampshire students to the point where they felt the need to lash out. It saddens me to think that perhaps a serial insensitivity toward her culture may have put the second Hampshire student out in the cold for so long that it numbed her fingers to the point where she lost the sense of touch necessary to talk about these issues. It’s tragic when a discourse on issues of social or cultural sensitivity inhibits progress on the very issues it is trying to address because it is overly aggressive, polarizing, or insensitive itself. I don’t know any roadmap for how it is best to address insensitive attitudes. But I do know that consideration and friendship should be pursued instead of alienation and aggression.

This episode highlights that just as an offensive costume can make us feel left outside in the cold, so can talking about a costume in an offensive way. If we want to foster a community of warmth and openness, we need to be aware of how all forms of our speech may leave others outside in the cold. This way, we are inviting each other in, not keeping each other out.

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11 comments on “Talking About Halloween

  1. Sharline Dominguez
    October 30, 2013

    Interesting.. William, if you’re okay with sharing, what were some of the costumes on the flyer?

  2. Siraj Ahmed Sindhu
    October 30, 2013

    Misunderstandings regarding “cultural appropriation”, malicious or not, seem to be increasingly common. The Luau/Island in the Sun TAP is just one more example. I don’t quite understand this attitude of hostility, though. Is there any reason why expanding one’s cultural horizons and adopting practices/dress from other ethnicities is inherently wrong, let alone offensive? I don’t think so. I agree with you strongly: cultural borrowing ought to be encouraged for its didactic potential rather than discouraged out of fear of its use as a vehicle for racism.

    • William Herman
      October 30, 2013

      The hostility surrounding this dialogue worries me too. Across the blogosphere, I’ve found an attitude of accusatory aggression from those who “attack” the issue of cultural appropriation.

      Here it’s obvious – http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com/post/781005138/on-reverse-cultural-appropriation

      And even here, one of the more reasoned blogs –

      https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/whats-the-difference-between-cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/

      It’s always tough to enter into a territory of what “should be offensive.” If somebody is offended by something, it’s offensive. I think what we can say is that we presume “ownership” over a cultural symbol or image–a deep romantically conservative attitude–we are doomed to find our monolithic conceptions of culture challenged and outright broken by the natural “didactic” of culture itself. If this is offensive, than unfortunately some of us always will feel hurt. The key is to moderate how we present images and symbols in public spaces so that we are not outright mocking a culture (i.e. halloween costumes).

  3. Anonymous
    October 30, 2013

    Loved this article. Very reasonable approach to the issue of potentially offensive costumes. You were very much in the right to question the attacking Hampshire kid- her assumptions and aggressive behavior were totally out of line. Also, that list? Kind of ridiculous, mostly the line about dressing as a “culture that is not my own? ” Does this mean I’m not allowed to wear German Lederhosen because I’m American?

    • William Herman
      November 1, 2013

      Thank you for your kind words!

      I too find the idea that we might all presume a logic of “cultural ownership” over any symbol, image, ritual, tradition, or manner of dress highly problematic. What happens if someone else “from our own culture” holds a different conception of this cultural object? Who has authority over what is the right way to dress in a culture and what is not? In reality, isn’t there a culture of “cultural appropriation,” meaning a culture of dress built on stereotypes of other cultures? The rational academic mind is worried about the implications of these questions. If we want to try and quell this anxiety, on academic terms, we can invoke the Romantic tradition and say that we “feel it” if our culture is being respected or not–it’s not something that we can or should explore beyond the sublime illogic of human impression. I’m not really a fan of that response, personally. The bottom line is though that these are academic concerns. People still get offended. Members of our community, our friends, us, we get offended. So it’s important that we reasonably consider what we do in public spaces that will contribute to an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance and not one of hostility or cold exclusion. Of course, that goes for those who may have strong feelings about the portrayal of their culture (like you said that Hampshire student was out of line). Maybe we just need to laugh.

  4. William Ruhm
    November 2, 2013

    William,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. However, I have two objections to what you have written.

    First, I wonder if it is not worth giving people of color the “benefit of the doubt” when it comes to possible moments of cultural appropriation. I certainly recognize that you had no bad intentions in the costume you created. However, I don’t believe that the student of color who approached you would have taken the initiative to do so unless she found the costume hurtful on some level. In any case, the view that any person of color who “calls racism” is malicious or is lashing out is hurtful and frankly not often true. While I am sympathetic to the difficulty of your experience of “being left out in the cold”, I suspect that the daily difficulty and pain of being Black in a racist society is probably worse than any suffering you had to endure as a result of being told that your costume was inappropriate.

    Second, while you may certainly express distance from Anglo-Saxon culture (I too am Jewish by heritage, so I do get that), you really can’t suggest that you don’t identify as white. As a person with white skin, you benefit from white privilege. Sorry, but it’s just a fact. Refusing to admit (let alone actually attempting to take steps to rectify) the fact that you benefit from your whiteness is extremely hurtful to people of color who do not have the choice to, for example, simply “not identify as Black” and thereby gain access to all the benefits of being white in American society.

    In re-reading my comment, I think I come off as a bit confrontational . . . So, let me end by saying that I don’t mean to call you a racist, and I’m sure you are a good person. I simply want to express my thoughts on this matter, in hopes that you may find them to helpful.

    Thanks,

    William Ruhm

    • Jenny xiao
      November 19, 2013

      Thanks for the comment Will. Finally someone who understands from the other side.

  5. Pingback: “Cold” is a Relative Term | AC VOICE

  6. Anonymous
    November 21, 2013

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2013 by in Politics, Race and tagged , , , , , .
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