The scariest costume you can wear this Halloween is ‘racism’
A fake ‘Sheikh’ nose, blackface, and a Mexican sombrero? Let me guess: you’re going to that Halloween party tonight as a ‘Howling Racist’.
Halloween has little relevance to the lives of most Pakistani people. It is celebrated in certain elite quarters, while the rest of us wonder what scarcity of spookiness there is in this country that needs to be compensated for with a few extra zombie masks. For those who participate, I may have a Gullu Butt costume to lend out, if you ask nicely.
But it is an important tradition in much of the Western world, particularly the United States. And there is no opportunity too small for people to consciously, or through sheer ignorance, make a show-stealing display of racism.
Walmart and Amazon recently came under fire for putting up on its website, costumes that are more than just borderline racist. These included a Osama Bin Laden mask, a large, fake, “Sheikh Fagan” nose that comes with a headdress, or keffiyeh, as well as a stereotypically Mexican “little amigo” costume.
To Walmart’s credit, these costumes were removed from the website, followed by an apology. However, the tradition persists.
Many years ago, I had a good fortune of visiting Chicago, and attending a Halloween party with a friend. From the sea of unimaginative costumes, emerged a white middle-aged man in a white kurta, off-white khakis passed off as a shalwar, and a fake bushy, unkempt beard.
He was a friend of my friend. I asked him who he was pretending to be. He dropped a hint in the form of a brief performance: shaking his fist and shouting gibberish.
He was “Rage Boy”, the internet meme.
Whether or not he was being racist, is for the reader to think about. All I know, is the humiliation that I felt in the moment when he laughed and asked me – me specifically for some reason – if he looked “authentic”.
Visiting a post-9/11 America, I was advised by my family not to wear traditional Pakistani clothing. It was an unnecessary warning as I don’t ordinarily wear shalwar kameez anyway, but clearly something had been going on in America for them to redundantly counsel me on the issue.
I felt cheated.
I, as an actual Pakistani person of Kashmiri heritage, could not walk through airport security looking like that without being scanned twice. My Muslim friend couldn’t sit in a bus looking like that, without attracting uncomfortable glances. We had to lock our Pakistani-ness away in a box to avoid unwanted attention, and conduct our business around the city in blue jeans and baseball caps, because for a myriad of small reasons, it seemed far more convenient.
Meanwhile, that white man stood before me, flamboyantly dressed up as a Kashmiri Muslim. For fun. Spilling beer on his fake beard as he rhythmically waved his red plastic cup to reggae music.
I did not drop the ‘R’ bomb at the party, as I was unsure of what it was. But I was still acutely uncomfortable with the idea of someone’s race, culture, or ethnicity being put on like a costume for a night of wild fun, without all the fear, stigma and history that comes with it.
Must be nice.
Little has changed over the years. On All Hallow’s Eve, there will once again be parties of people wearing comically large fake noses, pretending to be Arabs. There will be white women wearing Indian dresses, straight out of Mughal-e-Azam. There will be people wearing blackface, pretending to be ‘Crazy Eyes’ from Orange is the New Black series.
After all, Halloween is all about being scary. And nothing petrifies people of colour like racially privileged men and women appropriating our cultures, while simultaneously telling us to tone down our ‘ethnic’ behaviours so we may assimilate better in their world.
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