Feeling Like an Immigrant on Halloween?

An Immigrant’s Halloween: Blackface, Ghetto Parties, and Disney Princesses

Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make. But before I tell you my secret, you have to promise not to laugh at me. Okay? Alright, good. Here it goes:

I’m thirty years old and I’ve never once dressed up for Halloween.

There, I said it. Is that a big deal? Apparently, it is. I had someone go “Aww, you must have had a rough childhood!” and pout at me the other day. I felt so immigrant, in the way I’m sure many immigrants would understand. Kinda like the way you mispronounced words until someone finally corrected you, and you wondered how long you’d been mispronouncing them and why no one had ever said anything. Poor African. Funny accent. How unfortunate. Don’t laugh. Let her keep talking… and no Halloween? Oy. But I digress.

I’m from a place in the world (Nigeria) where black magic isn’t just found in the movies; stories of husbands attempting to poison their wives in order to sacrifice them to some Babalawo that promised riches in return aren’t told around a campfire; they’re relayed with the seriousness of a child kidnapping (which happened often for similar reasons) and a firm warning for everyone to keep praying for protection because you never know what spells, juju, or whatever else someone may be chanting about you.

Where I come from, Halloween only happened in the classrooms of white/foreign-run primary schools in which little white girls in swinging ponytails dressed up as sparkling fairies, bright-colored caterpillars, wealthy blond princesses, and an occasional culturally appropriated icon — Nefertiti, Cleopatra, a Geisha. Their mothers would sometimes bronze their faces with brown makeup — bought specially for the occasion? —  to make the costume appear more “authentic”. I remember wishing that I could be Nefertiti, or Cleopatra… they were beautiful African goddess, but usually portrayed as light-skinned (which both the cute mixed heritage boys and dark-skinned Nigerian boys at my primary school seemed to like).

I was one of the darkest skinned girls in my classroom, and though I had really long hair, I knew that I would never be able to get it to fall (or sway) like the swinging ponytail leads that dominated our school plays. I also knew that my parents would never have spent money on shiny gold material and Egyptian arm bracelets for a holiday they believed was just about “white people celebrating witchcraft”, so I looked forward to attending school in the United States, where I could fully immerse myself in Halloween, just like in the movies; I’d actually get to see, touch, and carve a real pumpkin, trick or treat without worrying about being kidnapped and sold for parts to juju people, and finally wear a witch costume — complete with a tall hat, green face, and yellow teeth — without teachers accusing me of selling my soul to the devil. I had such simple aspirations.

But during my first semester of prep school in the US, the costumes I saw were less childhood coloring book and a little more… R-Rated. My first Halloween weekend was freezing cold. Okay, it was just 60 degrees, but it felt like the Himalayas to me back then. So, there I was wrapped unfashionably and unfestively in heavy fleece layers of brown and black that resembled a moving laundry heap, while my classmates pranced around in adult-sized furry onesies and hormonal teenager garb. I remember the long line that stretched like a Noah’s arc procession of adult fairytale creatures from the the student assembly hall into the common grounds outside.

I recall the familiarity of the swinging blond ponytails — it seemed they ruled playgrounds even tens of thousands of miles away from my home across the Atlantic. I remember noting, however, that the innocence of their white privilege had re-branded itself post-puberty as intentionally provocative personas — naughty school girls, beauty queens, and virgin cheerleaders. The “pretty girls” of the world who once flit around small classrooms in bright pink Disney princess frocks, now strut down hallways in crimson lipstick and black fingernails, wearing ultra short booty shorts, pleated mini skirts that exposed un-aged butt cheeks, and baby Ts that said things like “Cherry Pop” and “Eat me, I’m Sweet”. Needless to say, to an African immigrant who was still trying to make sense of her surroundings, I was pretty sure that my parents would have placed Halloween on their Things That Will Destroy Us with Shame list, right at the top with drugs, prostitution, and MTV’s Spring Break.

So I searched to find space for myself on the flip-side of risque; the kids who fell outside the “cool” crowd — the politically inclined, the art geeks, the emo goths — all seemed to embrace Halloween as an excuse to make bold statements (usually against the dominant vanilla school culture) about who they were. I could have been down with this idea, but the only costume themes I surmised warranted presenting oneself as alien and/or depressed: dead presidents, political revolutionaries, witty takes on vegetables and/or fruit, and apathetic versions of “just myself since I’m always weird and scary anyway”. In college, however, costumes did more than make statements, they pushed buttons, and at times, caused so much controversy, the dean needed to send an email to quell the uprising of a student protest.

For instance, in my freshman year of college, a group of white (and queer) kids thought it would be funny to throw a “ghetto” party for Halloween, for which people were required to dress up as pimps, hos, drug dealers, and crackheads. Even “gangstuh” rap music was promised (by a white hipster DJ no less — Boston, don’t you dare act surprised).

That same weekend, a white friend of mine turned heads when he dressed up as Bob Marley, in full on brown body paint. I looked up the meaning of “blackface” after being the only person of color at the party in which he debuted the outfit, and having to smile as white people kept stealing glances at me for a reaction. But that experience doesn’t even compare to the party I attended the following day (80s themed) that included a room full of tall white guys wearing black Afro with pick combs in them, an even more R-Rated version of the swinging ponytails (now barenaked playboy bunnies), and an obnoxious prick that kept following me around all evening, demanding to know what I was supposed to be and drunkenly proclaiming that his Afro was bigger than mine. That experience wasn’t awkward — it was downright infuriating.

So, I vowed to wash my hands of the political farce that had become Halloween, and avoid the entire fiasco like the plague each year, because quite frankly, I had plenty of opportunities to remain angry at the stupid shit that ignorant white people said to me throughout the year — whether about my accent, my blackness, my African-ness, etc.  Too much of the other 364 days of the year contained insensitive, xenophobic, culturally appropriating, and downright racist incidents; I deserved at least one day off.

Incidentally, whenever I did entertain the idea of venturing out on Halloween weekend, I would fantasize about being reverse-offensive, culturally subversive, and extremely political — the angry fucking black woman that showed up with a blond wig and all white body paint talking in a valley girl accent, chewing gum with my mouth open, and humping the bar stool for attention (cause that’s how offensive it becomes when Halloween costumes insult entire cultures). One year, I actually thought of a black T-shirt for myself that said, “All the Bob Marley Costumes Were Taken by White People.” But plotting my reverse-offensiveness tactics for Halloween weekend didn’t make dealing with it any easier — it just kept making me angry. And who wants to spend a weekend that is supposed to be fun, angry? I don’t know what’s gotten into me this year (oh right, I just turned thirty), but I find myself yearning for the experiences I almost had in my youth.

For the first time in my life, for Halloween, I want to dress up, go trick or treating, and pose with a wicked pumpkin. I want to buy a sword and defend my woman’s honor like the dashing prince I always pretended to be when I was a kid and my siblings were asleep; I’d beg my girl to dress up as Xena Warrior princess so she can continually reject my grandiose displays of machismo, but make out with me in the car train when no one is looking.

I want to be Elphaba from Wicked, and represent the experience of every black girl that was called ugly by their white school teachers, who felt green with envy over the fact that they weren’t pretty white princesses with glittered wings and minions, yet who discovered their inner magic, their inner will to defy gravity and lead uprisings that made the world better, and less vanilla. And goddamnit, I want to be Storm. Yes, Storm. I know ti’s cliche — a black girl wanting to be Storm, but I don’t care. Storm was the one African superhero I had as a child. I woke up every Saturday to watch her kick ass in the X-men cartoon series. I still pretend Angela Basset played her (and that Halle Berry didn’t completely destroy my favorite afrofeminist heroine with her weak ass performance — ugh, I can’t even talk about it). I should be able to want to be a black female character on Halloween without worrying that I’m being ‘typical’, because goddamnit, Storm kicks ass!

But now what? After thirty years of getting no practice being creative for Halloween, I am stumped for ideas for a costume. Moreover, I’m no longer limited to the middle class earnings of my parents, but to the emptiness of my do-gooder wallet; purchasing a costume isn’t an option. And even if it were, there’s no way I could pull off a costume a la carte e.g. the latest, Nathalie Portman’s Black Swan, the classic Marilyn Monroe, or sexy swinging ponytail school girl. And yes, yes, I know Disney finally gave us poor little black girls a princess (and a racially ambiguous frog, I mean prince), but I’m not twelve anymore so I’m not sure that’s going to work for me.

Am I the only person of color and/or immigrant in this predicament? I’m still doing some research, but in the meantime, I’d really like to know: What costume choices are available to people of color on Halloween (besides Barack and Michelle Obama)?

[box type=”shadow”]Is race still a hot button issue during Halloween? Or is everyone just being way too sensitive? I’d love to hear what you think. Meanwhile, I am thinking about compiling a list of Top 10 Halloween Costume Ideas for POC, so please comment with your suggestions, both for the post, and for me, ‘cause this immigrant African girl is on a mission to get some candy this year.


  • mz_agams

    Gosh. I thought Halloween was the one last holiday left we could just have fun with and NOT get into socio cultural and political battles over. Or am I just shallow and superficial for not thinking about it?

    • http://www.OwningTheMic.com Ms.Golden

      You do have a valid point, if the "we" in your comment referrs to the entire population living in pan-Anglo-dominated societies. But Halloween is not, and hasn't been a 'fun' or 'joyful' holiday, for the many who have experienced it similarly to Spectra. She speaks for thousands, if not millions. The joy for the other "we" is shedding light on these truths, through writing – in the hopes that they don't have to continually live in a society where aspects of their culture are turned into mere costume and spectacle. – not to mention incorrectly represented costumes.

      What hits home with me most, is some people's almost-concious, yet, sub-concious awareness of their own racism. When Spectra writes, "after being the only person of color at the party in which he debuted the outfit, and having to smile as white people kept stealing glances at me for a reaction." , in reference to someone's brown-faced, BobMarley costume, what we are seeing here is white people acknowledging that its offensive, by instinctly "stealing glances" at Spectra, but hoping that she won't ruin "the fun" by actually taking offense to something she should.
      That's the stuff that drives me over the edge. People seeing it, but saying that they don't.

      We have no right to discredit others discrimination simply because we haven't been discriminated against. When will "we" get that through our thick heads?

      But thank you for questioning it, and sharing your perspective. Without questioning it, you cannot begin to change or expand your understanding of another's experiences.

      Halloween doesn't have to end. It can evolve.

  • mz_cook

    most of us are blind to things that we don’t experience. Halloween is a loaded holiday for lots of different reasons. definitely not one of my favorites.

  • Ebonie Venice

    Spectra great piece! I too struggle with these same ideas and notions about Halloween. Growing up in a strong Christian household we didn’t celebrate “the devils holiday”. I’ve only somewhat dressed up once, I have never gone trick or treating and I carved my first pumpkin last year. Halloween can be a fun holiday for some folks but I think if you honestly sit and dissect it–it is just breeding ground to reinforce a lot of negative things about our society: sexism (women’s costume choices are 90% slutty), fuel stereotypes (acceptable to be “ghetto” as a costume).

    • Donotask

      Spectra – “Halloween is for witches and white people” Yes, and that’s because it’s roots are found in Northern European folklore and Paganism. It is a “white” celebration, as is Christmas, rather Yuletide (from again Northern European pagan folklore). Even Santa comes from ‘The Green Man’ – “spirit of the forest” with a combo of Thor riding his chariot in the sky pulled by goats. This Santa image was tied into St. Nicholas after Europeans were forced to convert to Christianity at sword point. Easter comes from the spring pagan equinox and the goddess Ishtar, which is pronounced “Easter”. It was a day that commemorated the resurrection of one of their gods that they called “Tammuz”, who was believed to be the only begotten son of the moon-goddess and the sun-god.. All this was tied into Christianity to make Pagans accept this new religion against their will. You may have noticed that many white people are returning to Heathenism as way to return to their ancestral roots and heritage, and to reject anything that comes from the Middle East.

      This is the problem when you immigrate to a foreign country. Not all the celebrations are going to fit you, or your culture. One of the reasons I honestly have (recently in fact) decided that I am against immigration altogether. It doesn’t solve world poverty, and it causes too much stress for everyone. Especially the people and culture that belong to the country being flooded with foreign people. We have learned from our own mistakes in trying to colonize the world. We need to stop this practice everywhere, most fundamentally within our own homelands. Borders were created to maintain peace, not the other way around. We must never forget this. Race, culture, tradition, ancestry, heritage all matter, and they are beautiful and meant to be preserved.

      We need to go to the other countries and try to help them improve their lot where they live.

  • gm

    I don’t usually get to read your blog but this one caught my attention (becuase I love Halloween). It’s interesting to me how different people have such different experiences. I grew up in an immigrant home (and immigrated here when I was six). When I was little, my Halloween costume was whatever hand-me-downs I got from (American) family friends…one year I was happily Strawberry Shortcake (a white character…I’m black)and not a single person said a thing to me. It never occurred to me that this is something I could not be because the character was white. This is not to say that I was not aware of race but people where dressing up as animals and inanimate objects…I didn’t think the color of my skin kept me from dressing up as anything really.

    Then as I got older (and even now) Halloween was about how creative a costume you could make-up. Taking things you like or what’s in the news and creating something that makes people say…yeah…that’s ridiculously awesome. Sometimes its just ridiculous…and sometimes it’s just awesome. But either way that is what Halloween should be about, no…just a time to be ridiculous, awesome or ridiculously awesome.

    It makes me sad it’s not that way for everyone.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Sandy

    I am almost ashamed to admit that I have never really took the time to identify my issues with regard to how unsettled I always felt about Halloween. I read this blog hours ago and had to print it to read it again during my commute home so i could properly put my thoughts together.

    Born from Cape Verdean parents in Paris France I struggled as a child with the issues surrounding the color of my skin. Unlike what many may think it wasnt the fact that I was black in “white” Paris (by the way this is a sarcastic comment) it was the fact that I was referred as being too light to be black or too black to be white. In France we do not celebrate halloween the only dress up event is Mardi Gras which involves carnival attire and as a child they always photographed me because I was the “pretty ethnic” child who fit so well the costume of what could be refer as one of the gipsy in carnival. Growing up I never really understood but quickly I just didnt want to celebrate anymore Mardi Gras unless it involved feeding myself sweets. Fourteen years ago, I arrived in the USA and experienced halloween and beside my attempt at putting a witch hat on my head i have never been able to understand my resistance to this “celebration”. Each time I have gone to a shop I was never able to find something I could identify with and that I could walk around with. This blog has open so many different questions I have yet to answer. I do understand where you come from and your perception as I feel that unconsciously my mind has struggled with many of those same issues which this very second all make a little more sense and I must say 14 yrs later i still dont think I am able to partake in this celebration.

  • araines

    I must confess that I have always loved Halloween. Every year I was Wonder Woman walking around the neighborhood with my friends freezing my bony body. To me it is a celebration where the "witches" "sorcerers" and other members of the occult are actually acknowledged and allowed to be with the rest of us. I love going to Salem and watching the Witche's trials every year. I have never understood how a woman could be hanged because someone said she used withcraft. I am glad I was not around back then because i love my witchy ways, potions, spells and all. ____Having said this, I also respect and understand how infuriating it can be to watch "adults" parade and get drunk in costumes which make fun of other cultures and races. As in everything else there are always going to be those ignorant by choice. Now Spectra, I can still pull together my Wonder Woman , what are you going to do?

  • https://www.facebook.com/yarimee.gutierrez Yarimee Gutierrez

    "Needless to say, to an African immigrant who was still trying to make sense of her surroundings, I was pretty sure that my parents would have placed Halloween on their Things That Will Destroy Us with Shame list, right at the top with drugs, prostitution, and MTV’s Spring Break."

    HAHHAAH! I love this. I cracked up laughing for the majority of the post (and am grateful I didn't read it while in the office). But I was laughing mainly because I absolutely could relate to the truth behind your experiences. I most definitely have seen this — and, unfortunately, I think the "college ghetto party" and threat of protest afterward is part of every POC's college experience…sadly. Thank you for not making me feel bad for feeling so "alien" around the holiday and ending with the image of Elphaba defying gravity :) I felt I discovered a little "inner magic" myself just inrecognizing a familiar experience in this post. :)

  • http://www.spectraspeaks.com Spectra

    Thank you all so much for your comments — even those of you who have experienced Halloween differently (i.e. have actually enjoyed it). Some of the conversations that have been happening around this piece have been really enlightening, affirming, and hilarious. But some of it has also been frustrating — I get the sense that a number of people (who've had positive experiences with Halloween) have read this piece waiting for an opportunity to offer a 'counter'. This is not an argument — it's a reflection.

    I'm not speaking for all women, people of color, immigrants etc. I'm speaking for me, and in so doing, many women, people of color, immigrants etc. When people choose to engage on a strictly "well that wasn't the experience for me" or "you're making it not fun" tip, I'm flabbergasted by the blatant re-centering. I'm sure there are many POC living in the US who don't experience racism (at least not in a way that they can perceive relative to their racial consciousness), as there may be many immigrants who do not also. Their experiences certainly don't negate mine, and vice-versa, so responses reiterating this miss the entire point of this post. Regardless of which side of the coin you fall, Halloween is a loaded holiday as someone pointed out. Doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be fun.

    I hope we can all learn to acknowledge and affirm each other's experiences in the way we would want others to do for us.

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  • http://ewurabasempe.wordpress.com Kuukua Yomekpe

    How can I follow you?

    • Spectra

      Kuukua, thanks for stopping by. So glad you found me (and that I found you!). Love your blog. I’m on Facebook — http://www.facebook.com/spectraspeaksalot, and Twitter (@spectraspeaks). But you could also just subscribe to my blog to receive updates (Scroll all the way to the bottom, the subscribe button is on the right) :)

  • Saira

    The sad thing is, even though we’re the same age and went to the same university, I can’t be sure that the horrible ghetto party I remember is the same one you’re talking about here. The one I’m thinking of was halloween of 2003, and was run by a couple of desi, not white, dudes.

    I stopped doing halloween the year my mother (mixed white/latina) decided it would be just AWESOME to exoticize her daughters and stuck us all in harem girl outfits. Because our dad is desi, and so it’s like we’re costuming as our own cultural heritage lololol or something. I was never super stoked about halloween to begin with, and my shame and frustration that year — I was thirteen and just beginning to develop breasts and the horrible ‘costume’ mom bought attracted all kinds of unwanted attention, including a fit of uncontrollable rage from dad when he saw it — killed any enjoyment I had of the holiday.

  • CNnaji

    Hey Spectra. Thanks for this
    post. I grew up in a household that was
    Nigerian and Pan African. You see … my
    father is Nigerian and my mother is an African American who was clear about her
    African origin. Halloween wasn’t
    promoted in our household, although, my mother and father entertained us when
    we wanted to “dress-up”. Now that I look
    back, I only remember “dressing-up” twice. Once, I was Private Investigator
    Nnaji and the other time, I was Mrs. Nigeria.
    LOL. I guess, I totally missed
    the boat on this Halloween thing! LOL.

    Sidenote: We must further discuss the “ black magic isn’t just found in
    the movies”. So much to say about how the need to be Christian had distorted
    our understandings of our traditional religions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vera.anne.3 Vera Anne

    There are a lot of “block-heads” out there that do insensitive things on Halloween, act inappropriatley, or do things that are a reflection of their low mentality… so I feel for you.
    But Halloween for the intelligent, sensitive, artsy or compassionate souls are out there… and there are a lot of us, Halloween is just about having fun and being creative.
    One year my boyfriend and I were “Coneheads”. He prepared, way ahead of time, and made the latex cones from the size of our heads. I made the satin capes with gold trim. (Yes I sewed… and made them myself!!) We wore pajamas and carried empty six packs of beer except for one in the corner, which we could drink during the evening parties, We mimicked the speech of the “coneheads”, ie. “we come from France,etc.” (from Saturday Night Live), and had a lot of laughs. Our crowd always put a lot into our costumes and made a challenging and fun project of it.
    Another year, we were “The Elephant Man and his Nurse”… we made these costumes as well… to the letter… just like in the motion picture.
    Halloween can be an incredibly fun project if you really want to “take it seriously” and have a ball! I even have photos of the above mentioned costumes. I wish I had them handy and could scan and attach them… Maybe I will look for them and post… before Halloween.
    This Western phenomena of celebrating Halloween is a fun custom, and you just need to remember that we are all ONE, and that there will always be idiots out there, but you have to just feel sorry for those that have no idea they are being racist or discriminating.
    Keep the faith!

    • Donotask

      Or who just have a sense of humor and are not being uptight. Races make fun of themselves too. Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a Hitler for Halloween? Get off it!

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