When Halloween Costumes Blur The Line Between Topical And Offensive

Patricia Yaker Ekall

It seems Halloween 2017 is over the typically ghoulish or questionably ‘sexy’ costume and so into representing itself in all its ironically tragic and momentous glory.

From costumes poking fun at advertising faux pas, to ones celebrating the unsung hero and others that simply allow memes to come to life, it’s great to see people getting creative with their costumes.

But with the good comes the darn right ugly, which came out swinging this year. In a post taken from Twitter and shared on Instagram, a young Caucasian male can be seen imitating Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who has been protesting against treatment of blacks in America by kneeling during the national anthem at the start of his games.

The young male is seen wearing a sign that says “Will stand for money,” wearing blackface with an afro to boot. While some might give him props for tapping into the zeitgeist, it’s clear this sort of ‘costume’ goes beyond dress-up and shoots straight to attack. It’s pure hate under the guise of a Halloween costume.

The man can’t claim innocence like, say, a family with a black father, a white mother and two mixed-race children who dressed up as ‘black coffee,’ ‘pure cane sugar’ and ‘half and half’ respectively. Gauche? Yes. Mean-spirited, certainly not.

But there’s only so much lee-weigh the public can give an individual who is not new to pushing the boundaries of identity politics, as Kim Kardashian West is finding out after her Aaliyah tribute. My problem with this costume isn’t that I think it’s culturally appropriating anything, because who hasn’t bent the rules to be a Marilyn or Cleopatra?

I admit, with some trepidation, to once dressing up as Blair Waldorf for a party because, according to my senior school friends, she and I were most alike in backstory (although I hope not too similar in character).

I’m sure I would not have enjoyed it if someone had turned and accused a 15-year-old me of appropriating. I know I haven’t been repeatedly accused of benefitting from another culture, as Kim regrettably has, but my point is that sometimes the narrative – the well-meant intention – overpowers the finer detail. Notably, Kim did not have to use blackface for her tribute to be clear.

Yet as someone who remembers the shock of Aaliyah’s tragic passing, at first glance Kim’s ‘tribute’ didn’t sit 100% well with me. It wasn’t until I understood from her social media posts that she was doing it as a three-part tribute to Madonna, Cher and Aaliyah, effectively giving credit where it’s due, that it did. Now I almost look at it in the same way I see Demi Lovato’s more ‘culturally appropriate’ tribute to Selina Quintanilla, another star gone too soon, which gave me chills in the best possible way.

Do I need to check my bias?

Baby Girl Aaliyah — Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian)
Tamina Begum

Halloween can be an awkward time. It’s a time where many call out ‘cultural appropriation’ and many respond with ‘it’s appreciation’ or ‘we didn’t mean it like that’. The response you need to take a chill pill has also been thrown around.

Let’s go back to what cultural appreciation really means: it is stealing parts of someone’s culture without crediting that culture and pretending the subject in place is “the new thing”. It’s as frustrating as Gwyneth Paltrow stating old Indian remedies as new ones for Goop! and can be as stupid as stating Ghee is better for you than butter.

Did Kim Kardashian culturally appropriate this Halloween? I’m going to argue no. Yes she doesn’t speak out much on black rights with her huge platform, yes she has black children and a black husband but she did not not give props to Aaliyah. She didn’t just put on a 90s outfit and ignore her predecessors in popular culture. Just like many women – of all shades do – when it comes to Lil Kim, Queen Latifah, Eve, TLC and more.

Many people dress as icons and Kim chose to do the same this Halloween. She also dressed up as Cher and Madonna. Cher being the closest to her actual ethnic background. She certainly did not blackface.

I dressed up as Frida Kahlo this year and I am far from being Mexican. But it didn’t feel less ‘woke’ and I don’t believe I was stealing a culture but shining a light on an artist I have always loved and adored. With Kim Kardashian West, I do feel as though because of the mistakes she has made in the past, because she has profited before from black culture that she is an easy target to state ‘cultural appropriation’ to.

However dressing up in blackface as a NFL star standing up to an unfair system and president is something I can call out. That isn’t even cultural appropriation, it’s not funny, it’s blatant racism. And for the dresser’s response to be that he didn’t know the effect it would have or that it deemed to be this awful is plain ignorance.

The root of racism.