Why ‘Refugee’ Is Not a Halloween Costume

By Tenzin Pelkyi

Halloween is typically considered a light-hearted annual holiday where tradition calls for creative costume ideas and trick-or-treating children. Recently, however, what has also become a tradition on this day is for people to push the envelope by donning costumes inspired by current news and pop culture trends. This has led to much pushback and criticism, with calls for people to avoid racially insensitive and politically charged costumes. Some universities have even launched campaigns to encourage students to be considerate about other peoples’ cultures and consider what may be disrespectful to a racial/ethnic minority group.

Some commentators, however (including those generally considered politically liberal), have begun to decry what they deem restrictions on free speech and creative expression. Pejorative terms (e.g. ‘politically correct’ or ‘PC police’) for those critical of Halloween costumes racializing and caricaturizing entire groups of people attempt to gloss over complex realities about race and multiculturalism in a society where demographic shifts have led to rising xenophobia and nativist extremism in western nations.

The recent Syrian refugee crisis has spurred renewed debate about how states should respond to humanitarian crises involving refugees (often referenced interchangeably, and incorrectly, with the term ‘migrants’).

International incidents like the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris have raised difficult questions about towing the line between free speech and hate speech. But what is often glossed over in this false dichotomy is the subtle, pernicious effect of anti-immigrant rhetoric, often rooted in long-held orientalist constructions and a pervasive fear of ‘the other’ (now officially dubbed Islamophobia).

Indeed, what may appear to many as a ‘harmless’ costume on Halloween depicting a refugee woman with a baby strapped to her chest and a gleeful expression spread across her face, is thus considered by many as an insensitive racial characterization, essentially making a mockery of the ongoing suffering of millions across the globe. Meanwhile, in western Europe, reports of increasing hate crimes targeting refugees are growing at an alarming rate.

Although restrictions on Halloween costumes are not feasible in highly individualistic western societies that have enshrined values promoting freedom of expression in their constitutions, ethical and moral considerations are absolutely critical on occasions that now embrace ritualized provocation– often at the expense of the most marginalized members of our global community.

*Note: This article has been republished on the author’s Medium blog.


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