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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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.