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Opinion This Halloween, don’t let cultural-appropriation fears shut down honest discussion

Debra Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University.

Halloween was once a much simpler time. In recent memory, it has gone from being a festive celebration encouraging creativity, tackiness and sexualized costumes, to signifying an annual occasion for white people to live in fear of committing cultural appropriation.

The tendentiousness of Halloween costumes gained widespread attention in 2015, when Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Yale University, was physically mobbed on campus after his wife, also a Yale professor at the time, was harassed for defending students’ right to choose their own costumes without advice from the institution.

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Since then, in the name of being racially sensitive, some universities have created costume guidelines detailing what is and isn’t appropriate for students to wear. This concern has also extended to children’s costumes, with Disney’s Moana actress, Auli’i Cravalho, recently giving nervous parents and children the green light to dress like her.

Surely there is a balance to be found between the free-for-all of years before and our current, hypersensitive climate. Without it, we lose the ability to discuss critical issues pertaining to race, and thereby spread true awareness. In fact, a new study from More in Common, an organization based in Europe and the United States seeking to narrow the political divide, suggests that “non-white” people are more likely to “dislike” political correctness, and that it’s an issue that highly educated, left-leaning white people have chosen to prioritize.

As described in The Atlantic, 82 per cent of Asians, 87 per cent of Hispanics and 88 per cent of American Indians viewed PC culture as more of a problem than did white people (79 per cent) and African-Americans (75 per cent). Of note: Although black Americans’ responses were more typical of the idea that ethnic minorities support political correctness, this group was only four percentage points less likely than white people to say that political correctness is a problem.

At best, support for PC culture – and presumably the sensitivity pertaining to Halloween costumes – is being promoted by an overly empathic majority, hoping to correct for previous injustices. At worst, it is the tokenization of non-white people as a way to garner social brownie points and display one’s “wokeness.”

As a visible minority who has experienced racism, I believe that engaging with those who display ignorance, instead of dismissing and shaming them, is the most productive way forward. Consider Megyn Kelly’s firing last week, after apologizing for asking panelists on her show whether they considered blackface, as part of a Halloween costume, to be inappropriate.

Without question, blackface is horribly offensive and we should call out anyone who thinks otherwise. But shutting down the conversation impinges on an opportunity to educate others, as, no doubt, many others watching it unfold have similar questions in mind.

Intention matters, as does whether someone is acting out of malice or ignorance. A good rule of thumb we can all agree to, regardless of how we feel about political correctness, is to use common sense and be respectful. One example of poor judgment surfaced two years ago at Queen’s University when a group of students thought it would be a good idea to hold a “Countries of the World”-themed party, in which mostly white students dressed as stereotypical caricatures of various ethnic groups, including bowing Tibetan monks, sombrero- and prison jumpsuit-wearing Mexicans and Rastafarians.

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If someone is racist, I would prefer to know, so that I can challenge them on why they think their point of view is acceptable. Censoring backward and racist ideas doesn’t make them go away; it only forces those who hold them to take them behind closed doors. For people who are well meaning and genuinely want to know better, it builds resentment and further ignorance instead of understanding.

So, wear the costume you want, but be gracious and willing to listen if someone tells you that you’re being distasteful. And if you see someone dressed up in a way that you don’t like, be prepared tell them that, too.

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