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Halloween Unmasks

Halloween is one of America’s favorite yearly activities. Unfortunately, Halloween can be America’s scariest, too-especially for those of us seen as costumes you wear rather than the human beings that we are.

Asian Americans, Native Americans, blacks, Muslim women in burqas, hijabs, and Muslim men in turbans with beards, are frequent targets of race-themed costumes. Whites donning blackface was a commonly accepted misbehavior that dates back long before it was disclosed in 2019 that the present Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, once went in blackface as Michael Jackson in the 1980s.

With anti-immigration sentiment toward Mexicans evident with the mass shooting in El Paso, there will be some Halloween revelers mocking this racial group. However, those not intended to mock or mimic yet dress up in Mexican serape and hat or the “Little Mexican Amigo Toddler Costume” sold on Amazon will also hit racial landmines.

We are a country that doesn’t want to confront race. Halloween, an activity that’s masked with tricks and treats and playful mischief, ironically unmasks the face of America’s troubled history with race.

Some feel Halloween no longer brings joy and laughter in a “woke” culture where the tyranny of political correctness and identity politics police behavior.

It’s hard not to make the connection with contemporary topics, themes, and people trending in news and culture to Halloween costumes worn that year. For example, a year after Trayvon Martin’s murder, a rash of Trayvon Martin Halloween costumes appeared with white people wearing hoodies, carrying Skittles, and sporting gunshot wounds. That same year, in 2013, Julianne Hough, a judge on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” wore blackface as her favorite character Crazy Eyes in the Netflix hit “Orange Is the New Black” for Halloween. Award-winning Nigerian American actress Uzo Aduba portrays the character Crazy Eyes.

In 2019, we saw Halloween decorations of lynching across the country. In Chesapeake, Virginia, a figure was found wrapped in black trash bags hanging from a tree. In Brooklyn, a Halloween decoration displayed children hanging from nooses. Sadly, the display was across the street from an elementary school. Here in Andover that year, just a 30-minute drive from my home in Cambridge, a McDonald’s apologized for a Halloween decoration displaying a person hanging from a tree by the neck. Even with the best intentions, Halloween hangings depicting the act of lynching ought not to bring joy nor laughter -- whether intended to cause harm or not.

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Our present-day fight is to pass legislation to make the act of lynching a federal hate crime in this century. The horrific act of lynching is a form of domestic terrorism and social control.

For example, Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American male teen lynched in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955, became this nation’s iconic image of the cowardly acts of white supremacist terrorism. In 2018 the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial, opened to commemorate the thousands of recorded black bodies lynched in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In this racial climate of a resurgence of white nationalism and political polarization, it was not hard to connect former President Trump's comments about lynching to some of the lynching-themed Halloween decorations that popped up across the country during his tenure. Trump's use of the racial trope essentializes and erases the particular history and context of black struggle in America. But Trump is gone. And, the lynching of people of color goes back hundreds of years.

Some feel Halloween no longer brings joy and laughter in a “woke” culture where the tyranny of political correctness and identity politics police behavior. However, if you feel you’re rocking your Halloween outfit instead of mocking an ethnic group or cultural practice, please keep these thoughts in mind: wearing the traditional clothing of another culture is not a costume.

irene monroe

Donning blackface is not a mask. Dressing as a homeless person isn’t funny. Adopting someone else’s dialect for the evening is not cool. Purchasing the “Disguise Women’s Dragon Geisha Costume” from Amazon is not okay.

Halloween is a Celtic festival. People lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. We can do the same without dredging up the ghosts of America’s racism.

Irene Monroe