Halloween, with its increasingly global appeal, is here again and that means children and adults alike get to dress in flamboyant costumes and overindulge on their vices. But through costumes and theme parties associated with this day, people attempt to take on identities other than their own. By assuming new identities, the characters and pop culture icons that are resurrected and creatively imagined demonstrate current social trends and more importantly act as a unique reflection of how people see each other. The ingenuity of make-believe can be amazing, but sadly, far too often, costumes become distasteful reminders of social discord (and the reason for its perpetuity) as well as the pervasiveness of ignorant and blatantly racist stereotypes.
A number of attempts have been made this year to advise revelers in making wise costume choices. There are lists of racist costumes to avoid and even examples of people pulling off costumes of characters and celebrities with a different cultural background than their own.
One hard and fast, non-negotiable rule to keep in mind when creating your Halloween masterpiece: blackface is never hip. Never. If you have any questions there’s a handy flowchart that can help.
Yet all the discussion on social media hasn’t stopped some ignorant people from shamefully embracing racist representations of other cultures. Considering “Africa” is an imagined fantasy-land in many peoples’ minds limited to wild animals, exotic “tribes” and colonial nostalgia, any “Africa”-themed party or costume will likely be a serious disaster. For some reason, ideas of Africa, when recycled and represented by outsiders, have a sinister tendency to take the form of the most simplistic and exaggerated stereotypes.
Let’s take the “Disco Africa” party thrown in Milan, Italy by a renowned fashion photographer Giampaolo Sgura on Saturday, October 26. According to one enthusiastic blogger who was at the event, “all fashionable people in Milan have been preparing for this event for a month.” Even the famous fashion designer Alessandro Dell’Acqua showed up in blackface. He was in blackface dressed as the golliwog mascot of an old racist Italian licorice commercial … and he wasn’t the only one. Dell’Acqua’s images have now been removed from the websites that first celebrated them. At a time when black models in Italy feel tokenized and discriminated against on the runway, and while the Italian state lets migrants from African countries die in its waters, let’s take a look at how the elite of Italy’s fashion community perceive “Africa.”
If these pictures did not satisfy your “Africa” party fetish just use the hashtag #discoafrica on instagram to help you get your fix.
Natasha Ndlovu, a British-Zimbabwean fashion blogger and model had this to say (the originally has been removed from her site) when she saw the images: “So, um, ok did these grown men miss the whole discussion on how offensive black face is? I know some of you are saying, but Natasha, this is more an American thing. But readers, there are these wonderful mediums called TV, books and the internet that have made is possible for even Bjork in her Icelandic hide-out to know that blackface is not fucking ok ! OK? And this is not the first time people in the fashion industry have been accused of doing black face. Did they not learn from their previous editorials, using white models to role-play black women by spraying them a darker shade? Remember the ‘African Queen” editorial? Oh yeah that’s right, myself and other black models were on vacation that day, so we just weren’t available for the shoot.”
Things like this really piss me off because as a black person and a black model, I struggle to find work and be valued in an industry that only cares about the color of my skin when they want to chuck a bright-neon bathing suit on me because, as the saying goes, “it goes well with your skin tone”. Just imagine the amount of times agencies have told me they can’t sign me because they already have a black girl that looks like me (yes, this has been said a few times) or that the clients they work with don’t hire black models.
While costumes of poor taste offer clues about social challenges in the societies that we live in, they say even more about the simple minds that bear them. Knowing these costumes play into generalizations and stereotypes of ignorant minds, let’s avoid the same mistakes with our critiques. It’s also not productive to get offended for the sake of it, we have to ask ourselves why these issues of representation persist and how we can address them together.