How to Not Be Totally Racist This Purim

As far as Jewish holidays go, Purim slaps pretty damn hard. You get to dress up in amazing costumes and drink a whole lot, so what’s not to love? But even though Purim can be really fun, it’s a holiday that’s attached to deep social justice significance. On Purim, we celebrate making a strong stand against violent anti-Semitism. The heroine of the Purim story is, of course, the badass Queen Esther, who uses her intelligence and bravery to save her people from annihilation.

So that’s why it’s all the more disappointing when people use the holiday as an excuse to don offensive costumes. Every year, my friends send me pictures of horrifically racist or sexist costumes that make me want to lie in the fetal position and just scream. Some people claim that they’re confused and don’t know how to create non-offensive costumes. I don’t completely buy that. How do you not know blackface is racist in 2019? But, for those still unsure, I want to address this problem. Here’s how to dress up in fun, interesting Purim costumes without being an ass.

1. Don’t be racist.

There are no circumstances — none — where it’s appropriate to wear blackface. Full stop. In fact, you shouldn’t paint your face any color in an attempt to mimic the physical features of an oppressed group. The history of blackface is extremely painful in the black community, and we’re still trying to dismantle the practice today. Similarly, yellowface and redface have also caused a tremendous amount of harm in the Asian and Native American communities. If you want to paint your face green so you can go as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (why would you ever go as anyone besides Rafael by the way), then go for it. But leave real human beings out of it.

And it’s not just your face: Under no circumstances should you be wearing anything like afros, dreads, or natural hair wigs. Black people are still being legally discriminated against for wearing our hair in its natural state, so you don’t get to put it on for a fun time.

2. Don’t sexualize groups of people.

Stay away from outfits that sexualize certain ethnic groups. Turn around and run — don’t walk — from any outfits classified as “sexy tribal” or “slutty geisha” or any other number of horrors. And stay away from outfits that demonize sex workers as well. No one wants to see you dressed as a pimp.

3. Don’t be sexist.

If you need me to explain why Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a feminist queen, then you’ve clearly been living under a rock. The 84-year-old Supreme Court Justice was the second woman ever to be appointed to that position. As a lawyer, she made history by fighting to make gender discrimination illegal, as documented in the biopic On the Basis of Sex. And currently, with a scarily repressive Supreme Court, many feel that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the only thing standing between us and complete fascism. It’s a lot of pressure for one woman, but the fact remains that Ginsburg is pretty damn amazing.

So, it seems hard to imagine that anyone would actually make an offensive RBG outfit, but trust me, I’ve seen them. And they’re offensive because they’re negative — they focus on her age, or they make fun of her health struggles.

This Purim, if you want to dress as RBG, focus on the positive things about her that make her iconic. Throw a lace collar over a black graduation robe, don some classy pearl earrings, and arm yourself with a fancy gavel. Or buy the “Super Diva!” sweatshirt she famously wore during her work-out in the documentary RBG and celebrate just how strong she is. You can use this amazing picture of Mikey Franklin’s costume as great inspiration!

4. Don’t appropriate culture.

Queen Yudit was a legendary Jewish queen, famous for resisting Christian colonization of Ethiopia. The Jewish dynasty that she established ruled for several generations after her death. Like Esther, she’s a figure that represents the need to fight against assimilation and the overreach of empire. And I stan.

Queen Yudit is often portrayed in a traditional habesha kemis, a traditional dress, with loads of gorgeous gold jewelry. It can be tempting to buy these beautiful dresses — after all, they’re not blackface, right? But if you’re not of African descent, you definitely shouldn’t wear one for Purim. Ethiopians face a lot of discrimination for their identity, especially in Israel, and furthering that by appropriating clothing is quite shitty.

And even if you are of African descent, you should be aware that this is a garment with deep cultural significance to Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, and that wearing it might be offensive to some if this isn’t your specific heritage.

But the good news is that you can still dress as Queen Yudit! Pick out an outfit that symbolizes her accomplishments (like a generic warrior costume) or a queenly, regal gown, and accessorize it with lots of fun jewelry. In short, don’t appropriate the culture of marginalized people, but celebrate positive accomplishments.

5. Be creative.

The most offensive Purim costumes are super lazy. They make assumptions about people and pick out the most obvious stereotypes to model. Or, they fall right into horrific no-nos, like blackface. So, if you want to make a Purim outfit that honors a person of color, go all out! Want to go as Billy Porter, when he wore his fabulous tuxedo-dress to the Oscars? Don’t just slap on a natural hair wig and a busted, cheap black dress. Use some fabric glue or sew a tuxedo top to a billowing velvet skirt. Add a tulle petticoat for extra ooomph. Finish it all off with a rose in your lapel, and put your hair in a faux-hawk.

6. Cultural references aren’t off limits…. but be careful.

Want to dress as a character from Black Panther? Then go get a full Black Panther suit, with the claws and everything. DON’T mimic the outfits that have deep cultural significance, no matter how much you want the part of the Dora Milaje. Want to go as Aquaman? Get a costume, but don’t put sacred Pacific Islander tattoos on yourself.

Purim is really fun, but the quickest way to spoil it is wearing an outfit that makes everyone groan, or to perpetuate racism by offending a marginalized group. This Purim, check your friends and check yourself. You may think your costume is fun… but does everyone?

Nylah Burton

Nylah Burton is a writer of good journalism and mediocre poetry. She has been described by racists and anti-Semites as “emotional, disrespectful, and volatile.” She thinks this is the best review of her writing she’s ever received. Her grandma has it on the Fridgidaire.

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