The thin line between appreciation and appropriation.
My knowledge of Halloween before the previous weekend was limited to the various episodes of American Television shows that I had watched back home; it wasn’t that I was particularly ignorant, but just that it is not a celebration observed in most countries in the orient. This Halloween however, I was enlightened, not only by the vibrant nature of the holiday and the jubilance it added to a now-very-tiring semester, but also by the contentious debates the theme of Halloween stirred around the nation in general, and on our campus in specific.
The holiday brought with it an overwhelming excitement to our campus, and costumes that were not only diverse but amazingly creative. My favorite one was a pun-inspired costume donned by a senior who wore a t-shirt labeled “Life” and distributed lemons to everyone he saw. While I did envy the person for having gotten away with spending so little money on their costume, I must admit, it was quite a witty way of getting free lemonade in return! Then there was the dashing V from V for Vendetta costume worn by a freshman who was so excited by the holiday that he uploaded some fifty pictures on Facebook over the weekend. I am referring, of course, to yours truly.
The most striking feature of the holiday, however, was how it raised the discourse concerning cultural appropriation. As a first-time observer of Halloween, I had never considered the deep implications one’s costumes could carry if not thought through properly. The running hashtag #MyCultureIsNotACostume which took social media by storm through the weekend was a perfect example of this discourse. It was trending on both Facebook and Twitter, and called many to reflect on whether their costumes were inspired by a particular community’s culture. It became increasingly clear to me that Halloween, if not celebrated in its right spirit, can turn out to be terribly offensive to certain groups of people.
The following day, I watched Bill Maher call out the “PC Police” on his HBO show Real Time for enforcing political correctness even on a day as innocuous as Halloween. But having witnessed this debate from various perspectives on our rather diverse and liberal campus, I found his argument to be outrageously inadequate, for it seemed to encourage offensive micro aggressions. It is not as if political correctness seeks to ruin the fun and frolic of the holiday, rather, wearing a respectful costume merely ensures that one is not enjoying Halloween at the expense of another’s culture being reduced to a mere joke.
It is not uncommon for one to step into the nearby Garment District, a popular costume shop near Harvard, and chance upon outfits that are in some cases questionable, and in others, overtly derogatory. Right from misogynist symbols such as fake anatomical parts and skewed depictions of Hindu goddesses, to faux-leather outfits that undermine the Native American culture, we cannot hide ourselves from the rampant cultural appropriation deeply entrenched in the Halloween tradition. It is a reality many have somehow embraced, but one I hope we learn to outgrow. The reason I feel this way, is because not only is refraining from dressing up as a particular racial or ethnic group not ruining the fun of Halloween, but also because by refusing to do so, we are protecting the holiday from its own demise.
With the ever-growing public awareness surrounding cultural appropriation and the various ills that come with it, one would only hope that Halloween will start to be celebrated for what it is, rather than an occasion to offend in order to glean approval. I hope that in the next few years, as I grow more and more accustomed to the Halloween tradition, and immerse myself deeper in the debate around cultural appropriation, I will see the day celebrated in a similar spirit across the society as it was celebrated on Harvard’s campus – with much excitement, a genuine sense of community, and care for protecting the sentiments of those around us.
A little message to the likes of Bill Maher who need to understand, especially given the clout and influence their words carry, that political correctness cannot be suspended just for the sake of Halloween; if anything, respect and civility towards others should only grow in importance during times such as these. After all, we wouldn’t want to see people protest our beloved holiday because of what it has become, rather than the jubilant fiesta it was always meant to be.
Pulkit Agarwal ’19 ([email protected]) would welcome you visiting his Facebook Timeline and ‘Like-ing’ his pictures dressed as V on Halloween