On being culturally sensitive on Halloween

It’s that time of year again—and I’m not talking about the inescapable wave of pumpkin spice descending upon us all. Halloween is approaching and for many of us, the transition from tame and scholarly September into chilly and veiled October signals more than a holiday at the end of the month.

The origins of Halloween tell us that the original observers created humor to contend with the power of death. That cathartic binary celebrated the unknowable as they stood on the precipice between fall and winter, abundance and lack, life and death.

Students at Geneseo might feel similarly, as the end of October marks a precipice between regular classes and the pained lurch of finals—or between the temperate and enjoyable weather before the black hole that is Geneseo at its coldest.

Halloween as a holiday is, by design, a chance to let off the steam that is the stress of time slipping through our fingers—ever hurtling us toward the next catastrophe, the next demand and the next uncertainty.

Halloween has the potential to be a great observance, but it’s certainly not without its pitfalls. Halloween doesn’t garner itself any time off from school. This means a lot of action wherever students live. College kids getting intoxicated the whole weekend through isn’t uncommon by any stretch, but a holiday that encourages such excessiveness to come out in the open sure is.

There remains a precedent for students—or anyone really—to be culturally insensitive, racist or otherwise offensive with their costume choices. For students who do not know: a Native American headdress is not a costume. A sombrero is not a costume. Blackface—or any form of skin darkening—is not a costume. These are artifacts of cultures that are as unique as they are legitimate and are delegitimized and likened to a joke when worn as a costume.

When a student wears these costumes, they make it apparent how little they respect the legitimacy of that culture; they see it as a character to try on and that they do not understand the damage done to the reputation of people.

There are a lot of stupid things to dress up as for this holiday—such as a “sexy” Cecil the Lion getup—but don’t get caught in a costume that makes you look racist or ignorant. That wouldn’t be very sexy of you. And while you’re at it, don’t vandalize properties not belonging to you as you make your way from one trick-or-treat stop to the next.

Halloween needs work. It’s the kind of thing that comfortably middle-class white kids were raised on. The people who continue the holiday’s traditions in the Geneseo community might not have been taught to be self-critical about their costume choices or their behavior.

I believe that Halloween is at its worst when some people treat it like a day with no rules. Looking down the barrel of the end of the semester and a cold winter to follow, the instinct to make a crazy move makes sense. But lest we are to become real life ghouls, then a healthy sense of self-reflection and conscientiousness will be this holiday’s treat.

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