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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Halloween Costumes

There are plenty of articles about racially inappropriate costumes, yet every year folks perpetuate appropriationcaricature, and humiliation as Halloween sport. It is annual affliction, so I guess it's worth making the point yet again...

Using a culture, race, or ethnicity as a costume is not appropriate. Ever. 

On Halloween, we get the opportunity to disguise ourselves as something 'other,'something different from normal, something bizarre. That people of color might be one of these costume options is tragic and offensive.

As Lisa Wade notes, Halloween outfits basically come in three flavors: scary, funny, or fantasy. Real cultures shouldn't fit into any of these categories. By using people's identities as costumes, we imply that they are 'not one of us,' or not even  fully human, belonging instead to the realm of ghouls and goblins.

In the U.S., we spend the entire year marginalizing POCs, maintaining low visibility on TV, in movies, and in the media, but then suddenly become hyper-interested in 'appreciating culture' for one offensive night (as though dressing as a Hollywood version of what you think a culture is has anything to do with appreciating it).

When we claim that it's all 'good harmless fun,' we reveal our privilege never to have to face the consequences of such stereotypes in our own lives. We reveal the power we hold to dictate who defines 'harmless' and 'fun.' We reveal how loudly our own voices are heard, even as we silence others. We reveal our capacity to imagine fantasy worlds for real cultures, while ignoring the historical baggage that makes us feel uncomfortable.

 Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) at Ohio University began a poster campaign to educate folks about the hurtful nature of racist costumes with the slogan "we're a culture, not a costume." All of the costumes they depict are real, and are perennially reprised. They get big props for concisely and clearly communicating what many of us have been frustrated with for years.

So, before dressing up this year, be sure to check out refer to Austin C. Brown’s guide to finding culture-appropriate costumes. And if you are looking for some clever alternatives, check out Take Back Halloween, and try some new themes this year.


  1. Thanks for this! I totally agree. My only concern is that the Take Back Halloween site you linked to at the bottom seems to promote cultural commodification in its costume ideas. How is what I'm seeing there different from what you said in your post?

  2. hi Naomi-
    Thanks for your comment. You're right that there are similar issues here and that it's hard for sites to get away from these tropes.

    What I like about the ideas presented at 'Take Back Halloween' is that the costumes are based on real historical figures, rather than dressing generally as a 'culture' in order to get laughs. They convey that person's ethnicity, not by using blackface or stereotypes, but by modeling the design after actual photos of the historical figures. I also really like that these are of strong historical women and are costumes for women that do not rely of sex to sell.

    Before using any of these costume ideas, individuals would certainly have to discern for themselves whether it is culturally appropriate to dress as a hero of someone else's heritage using the designs presented here. And if in a party context the costume would be offensive without an accompanying explanation, then it's not worth using. But in general, I like the idea of highlighting people from history that don't normally get recognized if it can be done respectfully.

  3. I wonder what would happen if people who are Asian, Mexican, Native American and other races dressed up in "ethnic" costumes on Halloween. Or the clothes they wear that *do* look different from western/white american mainstream. Imagine... how a real, complex person might appear contrasted to the stereotype. I imagine the effect would make people see things differently...

  4. Indeed! This juxtaposition lends much power to the STAR campaign.

  5. Thanks so much for this explanation. That makes a whole lot of sense.


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