Halloween is fast approaching, which means it’s time once again for white people to get in trouble on social media (and maybe with their employers) for rocking costumes they have no damn business even considering for themselves or their kids.
Every year, we say the same thing. And every year, it seems to fall on deaf ears. There was that time when this white lady in Brazil dressed her son in a blackface slave costume with shackles, bloody bandages and whipping marks.
Then there’s the UPS employee who wore the “Mammy” getup. There was the salon owner who posted a video of an employee in Michael Jackson blackface. And, of course, there’s a list of politicians who caught a reckoning for behaving badly back in their younger days, like the otherwise beloved Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who apparently didn’t know better wearing an “Arabian Nights” costume in brown face at a party in 2001.
I could spend the rest of this piece tabulating the stunning volume of blackface fails, but we’d be here all day. I’m actually here to explore an interesting discovery for Halloween in 2021: the Harriet Tubman costume – for girls and women manufactured bu California Costumes and available through various retailers online.
For those of you who slept through the entirety of your seventh grade American History course, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and became an historical figure through her role in the network of rescuing other slaves known as the Underground Railroad. She’s experienced a renaissance of sorts in recent years, including a riveting depiction by Cynthia Erivo in the 2019 biopic Harriet as well as a name drop in the title of Phoebe Robinson’s Sorry Harriet Tubman, her new stand-up special on HBO Max. There’s also her spot on the $20 bill we were promised that hasn’t yet come to fruition due to what I can only surmise is bureaucratic ass dragging.
At any rate, if there’s one historical figure I’m completely good with young Black girls dressing up as for Halloween, it’s Tubman. On the other hand, anyyyyyyonnnnne can purchase and wear this costume, and I’m not entirely sure I want to see white people dressed as Harriet Tubman whilst bopping around looking for candy.
There’s definitely a way that non-Black people can appropriately dress up as famous Black folks (more on that in a second). But in this case, we’re talking about the potential of a blonde haired, blue-eyed girl-slash-woman rocking antebellum slavery gear while holding a purpose-driven lamp.
And let’s be clear – White people from Middle America barely know who Tubman is, let alone would dress as her for Halloween. What I’m really worried about are those “woke” white mothers from Connecticut who dress their daughters up as Tubman, if only to send her off to school with the intention of “educating” her fellow classmates.
There are manifold better ways to learn about Tubman than being around a white kid dressed up as her. But more importantly, there are other Halloween costumes that, if white people insist on dressing up as a Black character – fictional or otherwise – they can pull off without the pitchforks and side-eyed comments coming out.
Black Panther is a great example. So many people adore Marvel films, comics or both, and the 2018 film set a stupid number of global records, which means it wasn’t just Black folks at the theater. Sure, T’Challa has been African royalty since the character’s inception in 1966, but we’re talking about a skintight suit, a full-face helmet and some claw gloves. Light work. If you try to go as the late Chadwick Boseman in blackface, however, you’ve gone too far and you’ll probably catch a beatdown.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve seen women and men pull off the Tina Turner costume. All you really need is the wild, spiky blonde wig from her Private Dancer era, along with the shortest, most shimmery sequined dress you can get your hands on and heels taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. White folks can absolutely pull this off without an ounce of skin bronzer; it helps, however, if you don’t skip leg day, because Turner’s gams were nonpareil back in the day.
If you are not Black and absolutely, positively must do Halloween as a revered Black icon, I think Civil Rights legend Rosa Parks might be your safest choice. The most famous image of Parks is sitting on a bus, wearing a hat, glasses and a generally nondescript coat and dress. It’s cheap, easy to pull off and, unlike the Tubman costume, is not cloaked in the imagery of slavery.
Let me be clear, this is not an endorsement to dress as Parks for Halloween if you’re not part of the Black diaspora. However, it’s probably least likely to keep you off the Summer Jam screen that is social media.