Every year story after story comes out about people wearing culturally insensitive costumes around Halloween. The lack of a response from chain stores that carry such costumes inspired two queer activists to start a campaign to bring light to why these costumes are offensive.
Emnet Getahun and Yeni Sleidi, from the website WWWayward, a multimedia site focusing on "intersectional dissent," launched the project as an expansion of the critique of costumes that denigrate people of color, and reduce cultural imagery to caricatures. Previous campaigns such as Ohio University’s "We’re a Culture, Not a Costume" initiative helped to educate students on what costumes could be considered offensive.
“Appropriation hurts,” says project co-creator Emnet Getahun. "Having your identity flattened down into inaccurate caricatures hurts." Their goal is to show Americans who otherwise might think donning a sombrero and a poncho or painting themselves in blackface how offensive those costumes actually are by giving them a taste of their own medicine by creating a set of mock costume labels titled “Authentic Caucasian.”
The photo set produced by the duo features a younger and older white man, and a younger and older white woman, each coming with their own distinctive accessories of whiteness. For example, the older white man comes with “tickets to Cancun with the Wife and kids,” a “Build that Wall Lawn sign,” a “Never Forget 9/11 bumper sticker,” and sunburn. The image shows a middle-aged white man in a button-down shirt and khakis riding a SegWay in an Olive Garden parking lot. The younger “Authentic Caucasian Woman” costume comes equipped with a “Becky” name tag, tickets to Afropunk, and a casual cocaine habit.
All of the costumes include “a sense of entitlement to other cultures."
The over-the-top generalizations about white people are meant to make white people feel the same discomfort that people of color feel seeing their cultures reduced to stereotypes on the shelves. "We're not appropriating white culture (whatever that means), we're simply mocking the practice of reducing people into caricatures and the mentality behind being a racist, xenophobe, et cetera,” co-creator and WWWayward editor in chief Yeni Sleidi tells The Advocate via email.
"The people calling our project 'racist' need to chill and consider that this is a reaction to their unfettered consumption of other people's culture/race." The activists also took their online campaign offline and went to costume stores to cover costumes depicting stereotypical imagery with their own “Authentic Caucasian” labels. But, Getahun notes that the key to racism is power, and it’s exactly why stereotypical images are dangerous — they’re mass produced all over the country.
“Satirical art about white people from two queer people of color cannot be racist,” says Getahun, who is Ethiopian-American. “We have no plans and no power to mass manufacture these costumes." But, they say that the project has received overwhelming love from communities of color, and it’s been shared over 10,000 times on Facebook.
Getahun and Sleidi, who is a Cuban immigrant, want this action to send a message that it’s OK to dress up for Halloween, even in homage to people, but understand how to do it respectfully. "Never do blackface, never dress up as an entire race or culture of people, and if you have to ask 'Is this racist?' it probably is,” says Getahun. "There's nothing wrong with dressing up as someone who is a different ethnicity or race, but make sure your costume is based on their attire and not just a racial or ethnic stereotype. "