In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” Matt takes his daughter to a Halloween party and wonders: Is Halloween a white people holiday?
It starts about a week before Halloween. A celebrity in Blackface; people “going as” Trayvon Martin; three men donning the name tags from Fox News, and some fake blood, and calling themselves the Asiana pilots. On Twitter, I see people of color asking publicly for an end to the racist costumes. I wonder that we have to ask, as if the onus is on us.
It makes me wonder: Trick or treat? It makes me wonder: What if, for some people, the trick is the treat?
A week later, these incidents will be largely forgiven, or at least largely forgotten. There will be other offenses to take their place, and costumes may seem the lesser evil.
But what if the offense is that this keeps happening every year, and every year, people get off the hook by saying, Sorry, Halloween made me do it?
And yet when it is time for my daughter’s Halloween party, we dress her up in a cute little fairy costume she got from an older cousin. We take pictures of her in this costume that likely says something about gender roles. We take pictures of her decorating a pumpkin and jumping around in a ball pit and getting her face painted to look like a cat. We let her eat pizza and froyo.
We are parents of a 2-year-old, and we like to think the kids’ side of Halloween is innocent.
I have always hated Halloween but faked it. Isn’t that in the spirit? I have wondered why I can’t get into it. One night where you can dress up as someone else, separate from yourself and the responsibilities that go with being you? Maybe that is exactly the sticking point. Some people can really feel free of themselves. I never could. Some people can return to their lives and take the mask off. I never could.
Halloween is a holiday where people have fun being different. Or is it having fun with difference, using difference to be even more themselves and shield the consequences?
This year, I pose the question to Twitter: Is Halloween a white people holiday?
When I was in college at Chapel Hill, Halloween was a giant street party. The police tried their best to close off Franklin Street to anyone not a student. Thousands of people ran around in that space looking for a night off. Strangers made out, revealed body parts. People felt protected by their masks.
I would run down those streets, too, hoping to get caught up, pulled in. Every year, before I joined the crowd, I would try to psyche myself up, tell myself that this time I wouldn’t only feel angry, or more alone. Every year, I would come home angry, and more alone.
Grace doesn’t like masks. At her party, she plays with the children who don’t have masks. She touches the fake muscles of a boy in a superhero costume. (We laugh uncomfortably.) She tosses bean bags into little plastic pumpkins with another winged girl. She stays on the side of the gym away from the man in the Batman costume, helping children down a slide.
She loves slides, so we try to lead her over. But when she is within the length of a body, she tugs hard in the opposite direction. She shakes and refuses to get closer. Of course, we do not push. Of course, we cannot tell this man to stop being Batman. We realize there is nothing we can do. Yet we realize our daughter has been aware, the entire time, of where the man in the mask was.
I have seen people at parties in racist and sexist costumes and said nothing. On Halloween, I understand even better why tolerance is a word to hate.
The scariest thing for me has always been dolls. You really want to scare me on Halloween? Go as a ventriloquist. It’s dolls’ closeness to people, without being people. That gap, that all-important gap, seems so surmountable. I think it reminds me too much of myself, and my wants. Or the self I am afraid of being, pretending to personhood. I always say, if a doll came alive–if it got to bridge that gap and achieve the humanity always barely denied it–of course it would be evil.
But maybe it is that I remember a life-sized doll version of myself that I owned when I was a kid (and kept locked in the closet). Maybe it is even more direct an association, the memory of this gift, this doll who was supposed to be me.
On the heels of questioning a Halloween for white people, I wonder if what keeps me from enjoying the holiday has more to do with adoption. Masks.
That doll–maybe what I hated about it, what scared me about it, was that it looked more like myself, with its tan face, than the version of me I had in my head.
Or maybe dolls are just scary.
I wonder, when I watch my daughter skirt the edges of the playground while other kids run through the middle, when I watch her skittishness with the other (all white) girls in her ballet class, when I watch her stay on one side of the gym in order to avoid Batman, how much she knows that she is different, and how much she is made to feel different.
Is that what Halloween does, throws it in our faces?
I tell my wife I worry about whether our daughter will like this holiday, as if that really matters. I don’t want to take her trick-or-treating. I can’t yet get to the thing I want to say, about growing up as an Asian American. I say it’s the candy, which it’s true I don’t think a 2-year-old needs to eat.
When we get home from her party, Grace looks at herself in the mirror, with her cat makeup, and says, “So cute,” in Korean. She throws a fit when I wash it off. She thinks it makes her cuter to have another face on? She is already a girl who will dress up only to go out, who will let her mom tie her hair only if she is going to see her friends, because she wants to be pretty.
Where does Halloween go from here, when for some of us, it stays in our hearts? Trick or treat. Where does it go when the masks that are most frightening are the ones we wear without even knowing it?
How long it has taken me to look in the mirror and get a peek behind the self I’m projecting. How do we speed that process up? How do we make that process unnecessary?
I want for Halloween to be innocent. I want for Halloween to be fun. I am reminded that the phrase “trick or treat” came out of what was once called “souling,” or going from door to door to get food in return for prayer. That we used to honor people on Halloween, and the scariest thing was that honor. Of course, honor is a more difficult costume. It means you have to think about what that person would like.