My Ghost of Halloween Past: I Used to Wear Cultures as Costumes

10/31/2017 06:04 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2017

I’ve never been too keen on celebrating holidays, except for one; I have always had an affinity for Halloween. Possibly it is more rooted in an adoration for all that is Autumn, but I cannot help but find myself immersed in the haunting aesthetic and imaginative fantasy of it all.

As a childfree adult, I sometimes subconsciously lament that so many holidays are primarily geared toward children. Now, of course trick-or-treating is a special, eagerly-awaited adventure for kids! In fact, I, myself, remember trick-or-treating with my friends well into high school—far beyond the socialized supposed ‘expiration-date’ of the activity's capacity for "cool."

However, Halloween also has a unique universality to it that allows adults, as well, to run the spectrum from silly to scandalous—all within the anonymity of the fantasy hiding behind face-paint or fairy-wings...

Beyond the gamut of jubilation, however, it is also a time for self-awareness and reflection. Adults especially are more capable of understanding—and therefore more responsible for—the consequences of the costumes they choose to don.

Halloween may be a day permitting mitigated inhibitions, but our ethical responsibilities do not get a day off.

I speak on this topic as someone personally guilty of this specific kind of oversight. At one point in my young adult life, I costumed-up for the holiday as a cultural stereotype. To this day, I look back at what should be cute pictures of fun memories, but instead... I cringe at my offensive choice (and rightly so).

I was wrong to appropriate another's culture (even some exaggerated, fictionalized stereotype of it) for my own gain and entertainment. If I had known then what I understand now, I never would have made that negligent choice.

Unfortunately, I can't take it back. I can only forgive myself for my ignorance, because I know I am intentionally working to never make that mistake again. I am fully aware, though, that just because I have forgiven an indiscretion of my youth does not mean for one moment that I am allowed to forget the impact it could have had on those around me.

Even if I somehow did not personally offend a single person that night, I am still guilty, regardless, of perpetuating the social norm that appropriating cultures to which we do not belong and of whose complexities we do not comprehend is somehow acceptable.

I can't take back the times that my ignorance caused personal and societal offenses, but I can own up to them as wrongs I have committed and dedicate myself to continually learning from my mistakes, listening to those around me who have a different perspective, and acting intentionally, always, in a more-progressive, more-empathetic, and more-informed direction.

In a world constantly exposing us to foreign trends in an ever-progressing age blurring the lines between formerly-firmly delineated races, ethnicities, & cultures, I know that for many individuals it is difficult to distinguish the potential harm in their well-intentioned exploration of the anthropological splendor all around them.

When it comes to varying regional fashions, differing cultural expectations informed by borders or tradition, and the sociological urge to assimilate, an individual who travels or immigrates may find themselves soul-searching a very personal journey further complicated by their uniquely-mapped place in this world.

I have found, however, that for most of us—though there is endless nobility in the pursuit of knowledge—perhaps when considering the societal impact and personal injustices associated with the claiming of one’s right over pieces of another’s ancestry (especially those cultures whose heritages were violently stripped away in this country’s colonialist history of dehumanization and forced acculturation), we must concede that at the cost of others’ reclamation of autonomy, our own education without the experiential aspect is sometimes the higher road.

When living a world that revels in the fetishizing of any characteristics deemed “exotic,” perhaps our intentions simply don’t matter.

But my atonement here is not related to the fluidity of fashion or the inevitability of cultural immersion; it is in the stark difference between those complex sociological concepts and the simplicity of our modern Halloween: a drunken night of frolicking mockery.

There is never any room for honor in the comical or exaggerated characters worn in masquerade. Costumery in and of itself is the assuming of cherry-picked aspects from some mystique for the purpose of an event, not the adoption or assimilation of traits that comes with regional or cultural fusion.

No matter how harmless one might think "borrowing" from a culture or a movement might be, we can't return something used... And the line between used and abused is razor-thin... and, quite honestly, not ours to define.

Unity can only exist within the boundaries of respect. Only through the humbling principles of honoring one another without the impulse to invade space that was never ours can we truly celebrate together in Community.

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