Dress You Up in Privilege: A Halloween Reflection

by: Raechel T

Let me start by assuring you that I love Halloween.  Partly because I agree with fellow In Our Words staffer, Lindsey Dietzler, who says that it’s a “holigay” that “allows for the celebration of all expressions of gender, identity and person-hood, giving every trans, gender-variant and queer person an opportunity to openly express themselves without being subjected to transphobia or homophobia.”  Partly because I am a femme, who already plays dress up on an almost daily basis and is happy to have an excuse to kick it up a notch.  And partly because I am also a femme domestique that adores baking cutesy, themey Halloween treats.

But Halloween is also a time when racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism and cultural exploitation are unapologetically paraded and encouraged.  And while queers are often the butt of these jokes qua costumes, some are the perpetrators.  As we know, being a queer doesn’t mean one is inherently also against oppression, and it’s no surprise that some of our LGBTQ kin do not practice critical mindfulness when deciding what to flaunt for the most fabulous holiday of the year.  But as I’ve said before, it’s important to remember that if we want queer liberation, that it can’t be disconnected from other struggles against oppression.

STARS (Students Teaching About Racism in Society), a student group from Ohio University unleashed a wonderful and important campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.” The ads created by the organization feature Black, Latino, Indigenous, Middle Eastern and Asian students holding up pictures of white people in racist costumes, proclaiming: “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”  This is a tremendously important message and one that queers of color and white queers alike should be at the forefront of promoting.

As a white, working-class queer, I am particularly sensitive to costumes that exploit the stereotype of “rednecks” and “white trash.”  I grew up on food stamps, shopping at thrift stores, with a dad that drove stock cars, and a house that was far more Roseanne than it was L Word. If re-claiming “white trash” wasn’t so implicated in racism – whiteness is invisible unless you’re an unruly welfare leech, an unfit neoliberal citizen, and in that case, we need to name it – I would reclaim it . Those are my people.

Sadly, mainstream society and a whole lot of queers think that being gay and being poor are mutually exclusive.  Gays are portrayed as being affluent, because this was the only way mainstream media could articulate them in a way that would be acceptable.  As long as the gays are well-groomed, contained and excessive only in terms of their spending, then the more, the merrier!

Thanks to Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and the aforementioned L Word, an appropriate neoliberal tale of success has been constructed: gays have made it!  We need not worry about heterosexism—let alone worry about working-class queers because Ellen! and Elton John! It’s like saying racism is over because, you know, Oprah. The fact that this is a problem became even clearer to me when my once beloved, progressive queer-avenger, Margaret Cho had this to say in a stand-up routine from her “Assassin” tour:

“It’s not that the conservatives hate gays, it’s that they know there’s a huge family-oriented Christian population who do hate gays enough to vote Republican if they can appeal enough to their homophobia. So, they sidle up to these Bible thumping, cousin humping, monster truck enthusiasts and they get them all riled up and send them in to a mullet fantasia about how gays are going to move in to their neighborhoods.  As if we would ever live in a trailer park.”

Actually, Margaret: we would, we do, and sometimes we have to.

But the white trash costume is a favorite, among straights and gays alike.  One simple Google search for “white trash Halloween costume” got me over 2 million results, among them a Facebook result for the “Gay White Trash Bash.”  More insidious is that many of the image search results showed costumes that not only poked fun at mullets, plaid, and booze, but also domestic violence.  As a group victim to such similar means of attack—exploiting stereotypes of how we look and being ourselves victims of violence—it seems immensely inappropriate to participate in making a mockery of it.  Furthermore, some people happen to belong to both groups: the gay and “white trash.”

So this Halloween, I hope everyone feels fabulous, but I hope also that we remember that there is nothing fabulous about racism, classism, sexism and cultural exploitation.

Happy Halloween!


One response to “Dress You Up in Privilege: A Halloween Reflection

  1. Your fine post points up a big contradiction few people seem to talk about. This point of view needs to be articulated more often ’round Halloweentime so people may think twice before mocking working class folks with costumes. It is hurtful to be oppressed for who you are, and we LGBTers should know better. (Personally, I do not think Margaret Cho has a queer bone in her body. I think she makes good money off of faux LGBT-hood.) I also came from a working class family and grew up with such a deep complex toward the middle-class I fought tooth and nail to escape the world I grew up in and the people I grew up with. Never expereinced self-acceptance… Being poor, it seems, is not a sin, unless you’re white. It’s time to address oppression for what it is, in all its clarity and contradictions.

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