Two things send a shiver down my spine when they manifest in October. The first is any sign, suggestion or sale related to Christmas. (Humbug, I say.) The second is the hand-wringing, the consternation, the lecturing, the civil debate, the digressions and the listicles of what constitutes a culturally-sensitive, tasteful and/or non-offensive Halloween costume.
All told, there are now roughly 825,956 rules regarding what is a proper Halloween costume, many of which are the sartorial equivalent of the local news warnings to be on the lookout for candy laced with drugs and razor blades in apples. Want to dress up like the Viking warrior but you're not of Nordic descent? Nope. An Egyptian empress? Don't let the pictures hit Twitter. What about a human who challenges ableist norms with his scissorhands? Or a person with a history of emotional and developmental difficulties manifested through tenacity, hockey masks and mass homicide? It's all gotten really complicated.
And God forbid that anyone dress as a “sexy” something, even if the thing itself is so decidedly unsexy that the costume can only be taken as satire. (Though, a sexy kitty is pointlessly basic.)
That not to say there aren’t some no-no’s upon which reasonable people can all agree. But we can whittle down to two the costumes that you cannot and should not put on this or any holiday season.
The first: Race-face. If you're a white person — and this is neither new information nor liberal dogma — it's trashy (and racist) to darken your skin to approximate anyone who isn't white. There's just too much baggage. If painting your face darker to reflect an actual, real human person or character in entertainment is your go-to, and you’re unable to use other clothes or items to signify who you’re trying to be, then you’re just a dumb jerk.
And, if you're dressed up as the kind of person who offends others, that’s probably a year-round thing for you and thus not much of a holiday-specific costume in the first place.
The other no-go is an outfit that’s never created or donned voluntarily in reality, which affects every race, creed, religion, nationality, and economic group. So if you’re putting something together this Halloween, never-ever dress up as someone incarcerated — political prisoner, inmate, apprehended migrant or detained terror suspect.
The statistics on incarceration in America are as familiar as a holiday jack-o'-lantern. The U.S., continually dressing itself up as the greatest nation ever, has the high incarceration rate in the world — 860 inmates for every 100,000 adults. In real, scary numbers, that’s 2.2 million people, with 1.5 million in federal and state prisons, and about 741,000 in local jails. Although comprising of 4.4 percent of the world’s population, we house 21 percent of the world’s prison population
Behind bars, every major American issue is exacerbated — racial, gender and income inequality, lack of mental health care, lack of access to drug and alcohol treatment, rampant sexual assault. Black Americans are, as everyone knows, jailed at four times the rate as whites. Latinx men are also overly represented in prison, making up 17.8 percent of the general population, but 32 percent of the federal prison population. Native Americans, too, are overrepresented in federal prison, comprising 2.2 of the population despite being just 1.7 percent of the general population. The poor, too, are more likely to be thrown in the slammer.
Further, the number of reported sexual assaults skyrocketed in the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ latest report covering 2012 to 2015. With 24,661 claims of sexual assault or misconduct, notes Reason magazine, “that is nearly triple the number recorded in the last report of this type, which was published in 2011.” For what it’s worth, 42 percent of those substantiated incidents involved detention staff members.
Numbers are hard to come by because we’ve all but ignored those locked up, but major mental illness is thought to affect 15 and 30 percent of male and female inmates, respectively — astronomical rates compared to the general population. Some studies put the rate of those inmates with some kind of mental illness at half.
And, though even before the opioid epidemic, around 60 percent of incarcerated people enter institutions with some drug abuse or dependency issue, only about 11 percent have access to substance abuse treatment while behind bars. And, for all that most people are aware of the massive opioid crisis in America, only one state offers full medication-assisted opioid addiction treatment, and 28 states offer no medication support for the opioid-addicted behind bars.
Things are just as scary for those not even in federal penitentiaries or state prisons. Annually, about 10.6 million people will spend time in local jails, and half a million are detained for extended periods before they face trial. The effects of detention (and freedom) even before a trial are dramatic: People who are not released pending trial are more likely to plead guilty and their detention has significant impacts on their current income and future earnings and employment prospects.
There are relatively few in American who have never experienced the carceral system themselves, or have someone close to them who has been in that situation. Those who’ve managed miraculously avoid any of the above often wear khaki, own multiple polo shirts and typically call themselves “Chad.”
The current state U.S. justice system is one of the few things (besides race-face) that I think we can all agree is offensive and tasteless.
Halloween, though, is the one day of the year that most everyone is allowed the freedom to be something different, and something they’re not. After a fun night of pretend and escapism we all turn back into what we are: A country of lawbreakers, criminals, convict, and fugitives — at least according to our own criminal justice system.
So please, forget most of the multiplying “don’t” rules and simply just avoid dressing up like an inmate of any kind this Halloween (or anything in blackface). For a truly scary and offensive costume, there are much better options — like a politician, or a Chad.