I remember the first time I saw it happen, years ago.
I was handing out Halloween candy. In those days, there were still enough houses in the neighborhood giving out candy that it made it worthwhile for the kids to walk from door to door down the block. So it was unusual to see a van pull up at the street corner, as a large group of kids piled out.
Almost all of the kids in that neighborhood were white, so it stood out that all of the kids coming out of the van were black. Their costumes weren’t up to the standard, either; two of them weren’t even wearing costumes.
This was suburban Detroit in the 1980s. We were a few miles north of the city line, so it was clear to my racist self that these kids had been shuttled up from Down There.
Detroit: “Where the weak are killed and eaten.” It was a popular slogan for those of us who wanted the “we’re so tough” cachet of living near the Murder Capital of the World, without addressing the actual problems. Today, the slogan is more empowering (“Detroit vs. Everybody”), but it’s still worn as a badge of false bravado by whites who nonetheless still fear stepping out of the safe passage corridors.
Those kids were in a neighborhood where they didn’t belong, and I shook my head and clucked and bemoaned the state of the world when black Detroit kids were coming into White Suburbia and “stealing” our candy.
Halloween is the most socialist of holidays. Other holidays involve people giving gifts to people they know, but Halloween is a literal free-for-all: The spirit of the day in modern America says that anyone who asks for a handout gets one.
Even on the most socialist of holidays, though, classism and privilege are obvious.
Gift-giving by Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy has this problem as well: Why is the Tooth Fairy willing to give more money for rich kids’ teeth? Why does Santa Claus give new bicycles and video consoles to wealthy kids, while he stops at Salvation Army for the poor?
At Halloween, at least, there could be some equalization. We’re giving candy to a mix of friends and strangers: Why does it matter which strangers?
And yet, for many people, it does. In Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column, a reader asked whether they should be giving candy to the poor kids invading their neighborhood. “Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity,” wrote the reader, “in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children.”
This year, the President’s son “joked” about taking half of his daughter’s Halloween candy away and giving it to “some kid who sat at home” in order to “teach her about socialism.”
Dear Prudence rightly took the reader to task, and Donald Trump, Jr., got the mockery that was due to him. But their attitudes reflect the class and race privilege that still rolls through this country.
I now live in a poor neighborhood. A few years ago, for my child’s first Halloweens, we walked around our own neighborhood. He got a few handfuls of candy, mostly dollar store stuff. Visitors are our house were mostly coming up from a few blocks south, coming out of the city. We gave candy to whoever asked for it, regardless of age, costume, or any other factor.
Last year, we got half a dozen visitors, total. This year, we got none.
I still took my son to the three houses in our immediate neighborhood that were giving candy away. Now that I’m the other side of the proverbial tracks, though, am I supposed to tell my child that that’s what he gets, because of where his parents have decided to live? What did he do to choose his neighborhood?
So the last three years, we’ve gone to wealthier neighborhoods and walked around. We’re now the people I used to shake my head at.
When we go into middle class neighborhoods (in our area, that means Berkley and Ferndale), there’s no balking. We don’t look out of place. For all the people giving us candy know, we’re from the next block over.
I don’t know whether black kids from the city get the same treatment. I do know that people still complain about kids that don’t have costumes, or don’t look right, or are too old, or whatever. And my son did get a few people (although not many) refusing to give him candy until he said, “Trick or treat.”
There are reasons why kids don’t have costumes. One is that they’re lazy, but there are other reasons. Poverty is a huge one. My son’s costumes average $20 a year, for an outfit he wears a few times. We could make our own, as my father did for me, but there’s still the matter of materials. And sure, there are “easy” costumes that can be made from things already around the house, but why are we judging in the first place?
Another reason for not having a costume is that they weren’t even sure if they were going trick-or-treating in the first place. In increasingly large areas of the city (and now, the suburbs), people are abandoning the tradition. Some cities have early curfews (Hamtramck’s, this year, was eight o’clock). Without a car, there’s no point to going out.
Complaining to give candy out to the “wrong” kids echoes the judgments we cast upon the homeless. In a way, in judging trick-or-treaters, we’re training our children to judge the homeless. If we’re willing to give things away, we shouldn’t feel compelled to cast judgments; nobody is forcing anyone to participate.
For many kids, Halloween is a fun time to dress up and get candy. For others, it’s yet another reminder of the class and race distinctions that still pervade our society. For me, it took seeing the world from the other side to realize how selfish I was being in my generosity; I encourage others to learn from my mistake.
Photo credit: Getty Images