“My culture is not a costume.” Six words, easily understood, which could help avoid the most tiresome perennial conversation in existence.
And yet, by mid-to-late-October every year, we find ourselves here again. So it was timely that the Toronto Star ran an article on the 15th by Kate Jaimet — an Ottawa Citizen reporter turned children’s author — called “The Halloween ethno-police frighten me.” In the piece, Jaimet claimed that, a few years ago, her daughter was sent home from preschool for dressing up as a “Native princess,” and recalled her daughter as “baffled,” unable to comprehend why such a beautiful costume could cause offence.
Jaimet went on to summarize recent Halloween costume guidelines from Conseil scolaire Viamonde, a French school board covering much of Southern Ontario, as saying that it was “better to stifle imagination than to believe that we share enough common humanity that we might be able, just for a day, to imagine ourselves as someone else.” The “don’t” list in the board’s guidelines, according to The Globe, includes costumes that call up tragic periods in history (e.g,. slavery), mock transgender people, and imitate specific cultural and religious attire outside of one’s own background (e.g., Sikh turbans, geisha robes).
But there was something that didn’t quite track about Jaimet’s story. Teachers of preschool-age children generally don’t send them home for infractions like wearing out-of-bounds costumes; they contact the parents and have conversations about why a costume was inappropriate. There was an under-informed, special-pleading quality to the story, like how a work acquaintance might whisper to you about the unfairness of affirmative action giving Blacks a leg-up in the workforce or that Natives get free college education.
So I reached out to Jaimet, as well as a staff member at the school who was familiar with the incident. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Maybe Jaimet would dig in her heels and call Indigenous people the real racists for trying to enforce colour lines on children. Or perhaps she’d taken a few days to reflect on the feedback her article had received, and be open to listening. What I got instead was probably the most Canadian of responses — a frustrating halfway point between pretending to listen and a stubborn insistence on defending good intentions.
“I find the whole white supremacy of the right extremely disturbing. Very disturbing,” Jaimet said when we spoke over the phone. “But I find the argument on the far other side [to be] that nobody can cross these ethnic lines. If you’re Greek, you have to be a Greek. If you’re a Mus— you know, an Indian, you have to be an Indian. I mean, like an East Indian, or whatever. From India.”
I’ve heard this line of argument before. And it would be easy enough to ignore, if one failed to consider that Kate Jaimet doesn’t write or speak in a vacuum. There are countless other white Canadians like her, who’ve never taken the time to try and understand the lived experiences of people who are racialized. Especially those of parents who live in the same communities, and children who attend the same schools.
According to the staff member I spoke with, the day Jaimet described in her article (when her daughter was supposedly sent home), there were no costumes worn to school. In fact, it wasn’t even Halloween yet. In a group conversation, the teacher asked what costumes the children in the classroom planned on wearing, and when it was Jaimet’s daughter’s turn, she answered that she wanted to dress up an “Indian princess.” The staff member said the teacher spoke to Kate Jaimet privately and explained not only why “Indian princess” might not be an appropriate costume but that “Indian” was an outdated term that could cause offence to other students.
One of those students was the daughter of Ian Campeau, who you might know as DJ NDN, the former frontman of A Tribe Called Red. His daughter attended the same school as Jaimet’s (though they were not in the same class), and when I let him know it was another parent at his daughter’s school who wrote the “Halloween ethno-police” article, he was less than happy about it.
“No one is born a ninja,” said Campeau. “A ninja is a vocation. Indigenous people are born this way. And when you think that it’s okay to do something fun with our culture, it’s literally taking our culture and making fun of it.”
I asked Campeau about what his reaction would be if he were waiting to pick up his daughter from school and saw another child wearing an “Indian princess” costume. It took him a moment to reel in his thoughts, and his anger.
“I’d explain [to my daughter] that ‘I’m sorry you had to see this. It was making fun of you, and that was inappropriate. And I’m going to talk to [staff members] at the school.’” He says he would tell Kate Jaimet, “That’s not paying tribute to anything. That’s making fun. I’m Indigenous, and I’m telling you that I don’t feel appreciated by this gesture. So please stop, because it’s not working. You’re not Indigenous, so it’s not up to you.”
I passed on Campeau’s words to Jaimet, and as heartfelt as they were, they didn’t seem to make a dent.
“I can see how it’s perceived,” she said, “and it actually makes me very sad that because of my daughter’s skin colour, she could be perceived as an emblem of the sins of the British Empire. It makes me very sad that that’s the case. But for many people, that’s how they view and interpret it.”
As she finished the sentence, my neck ran hot. We were veering well into the territory of white settler grievance, that place where guilt meets resentment, and ambivalence can lead to hastily-spoken words that can’t get taken back. It wasn’t a comfortable place to be, and I even attempted to interrupt Kate and reel her in. But the brakes had come off her train of thought, and there was no stopping it. “Maybe now, because of the relationship that we have in Canada, and everything that’s going on in terms of reconciliation, maybe that interpretation, I should be more sensitive to that. But at the same time, I don’t think there should be a general rule that no one can dress up in a costume, or an outfit, or a clothing of another person’s culture.”
I took that back to Campeau, who was just short of appalled. “I don’t know what to say to that,” he said. “That’s just a stubbornness, and lack of experience and empathy for other people’s cultures. It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Agreeing to disagree on whether or not I’m allowed to be made fun of isn’t up to you.”
And as for the argument that British colonialism has nothing to do with the innocent intentions of children, Campeau wasn’t having it, either. “We need to discuss that the hierarchy of race was legislated. People of colour did not enact and enforce slavery on themselves. People of colour did not enact and enforce Jim Crow laws on themselves. Indigenous people did not enact and enforce the Trail of Tears. If you want to get closer to home, I did not enact and enforce the Indian Act on myself. These are legislated white-supremacist laws. This feeling of superiority, that other people’s cultures are able to be used like this, able to be expendable, able to be laughed at? That comes from this entitlement, from legislation over a few hundred years. Let’s be real about it.”
I tried to switch gears with Kate for a minute. Perhaps her daughter’s intentions were pure in her choice of costume, and perhaps she didn’t want to put a damper on childhood imagination. But would that mean any costume at all would fly? What if, for example, she wanted to come to preschool dressed as a Dementor from Harry Potter? Was there a costume that Kate might consider off-limits?
“I actually had a conversation with my other daughter, who wanted to go out as a chimney-sweep, which is fine,” Jaimet said. “But she wanted to put black face-paint all over her face. And I said, ‘Well, you can’t do that,’ because, you know, definitely there is a line where you’re not going in blackface to school. And she couldn’t understand why, right? I mean we’re talking about children here.”
I didn’t quite understand how one costume (that was clearly crossing cultural boundaries) was worth writing an article about, but another (that was inappropriate but not necessarily blackface) merited drawing a line.
There’s a line of liberal thought that goes something like this: if moderate white people who make innocent mistakes are continuously called out and silenced, the only ones left to speak would be white supremacists. It was deployed when Hal Niedzviecki wrote an essay calling for an “Appropriation Prize” earlier this year (hinted at by no less than Jaimet herself), and has been dredged up countless times to explain the rise of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the election of Donald Trump.
The theory fails to take into account how people of colour must regularly contort their language, behaviour, and even appearance, in such a way as to appear unthreatening to white peers, co-workers, and authority figures. We’re all of us engaged in a social masquerade, and a recent NPR poll showed the precise nature of the farce: 92% of Black Americans believe they face discrimination, and 55% of white Americans do as well. In terms of what discrimination they face, most of those white Americans couldn’t name specific personal incidents (e.g., being profiled by police) or systemic issues (e.g., housing discrimination). In a sense, what white people generally have to lose, in the way they’re perceived to be discriminated against, is their social standing when called out for offenses they didn’t intend. On the other hand, people of colour can lose their safety, freedom, and very lives through racism — both the systemic and the targeted, interpersonal kinds.
But that bit of nuance is often lost on those who believe that political correctness and “call-out culture” are causing moderate whites to silence themselves, or worse, to retreat to the enclaves of white supremacy. It certainly seemed lost on Jaimet.
“I don’t think that people who are well intentioned — and I think I’m well intentioned, I’m certainly not a white supremacist — I don’t think that people who are well intentioned should be shut down from expressing an opinion,” Jaimet told me, “where we as a society try to work towards understanding each other on this.”
“If people like me are afraid to write stuff and to say stuff because we think we’re going to get a lot of anger directed at us? Then the only people who are going to go out and say stuff and write stuff are going to be people on the extreme right, who are white supremacists, who don’t give a care. I don’t think that we, in the middle, people who are trying to figure this stuff out, should just shut up and let the white supremacists speak for us.”
I try to interject, to let her know that her theory isn’t just an idle worry but comes off as a veiled threat — that if her daughter can’t dress up as a cultural stereotype, then she and others like her would leave the rest of us to the worst of white people. I say “try,” because it was difficult to get a word in edgewise. Jaimet would pontificate at length, I would attempt to respond or rebut, and she would get going again. There was much she had to say, and in that moment, was determined that I hear all of it.
Several times during our interview, Jaimet stressed the need for a “social conversation” on race, racism, and cultural appropriation. Perhaps that kind of conversation can happen. It would, of course, need to take into account the different stakes and different consequences faced by each group, and would have to include Canadians with no vested political interests outside of their day-to-day lives. So it was curious to me how Jaimet missed that we were on the brink of having the very conversation she believed was in such desperate need of happening.
But we couldn’t have that conversation because Jaimet needed to be heard. Heard above Indigenous people, whose points she understood, but ultimately disagreed with. Heard above me, as I tried and failed to interrupt her monologues on race, culture, and “being shoved into an ethnic box.” Heard above Campeau, whose every word was soaked in exhaustion with the Race 101 conversation. And heard above her own mother, who could be heard verbally nudging her to hurry up and finish the conversation with me.
I don’t believe that Jaimet is a bad person or that people who share her points of view are bad people. But the conversations on racism and appropriation were never about anyone’s hearts or intentions. They’re about the effects on racialized groups when people act without thinking and are more eager to defend their perceived right to offend than they are to help others feel socially included.
I’m positive there will be another Kate Jaimet with another take next Halloween. Perhaps we’ll have this conversation in perpetuity. But it won’t be because anyone is out to “police” anyone else’s behavior. It will be because there are, quite simply, too many white people who cannot extend the necessary compassion to end it, and who cannot stretch their imaginations far enough to finally let go of the tropes and stereotypes they created.
I asked Campeau what costume his daughter will wear for Halloween. “Zelda. But don’t quote me on that,” he laughed. “I might get in trouble. It’s gonna be a video game character. Maybe Link, because she’s playing a lot of Legend of Zelda lately.”
Andray Domise is a Toronto-based freelance writer, a regular columnist with Maclean’s, and a former host of COMMONS.
Photo of Jaimet on the Camrose Public Library’s Book Bike via KateJaimet.com.