Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?

When is Halloween “fun” simply a mask to express racist feelings and attitudes?


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays after Christmas and Easter.  As a teacher in the South Bronx, I used to allow my students to dress up after school. We would get in on the fun as well. Each grade team would choose a theme and dress up to surprise the kids. Two years ago, my fourth grade team dressed up as witches. We had a blast!

But there’s a shadow over this year’s Halloween celebration—and I’m not just talking about the recent events of Hurricane Sandy.


Four young girls in witch costumes pose together, smiling in front of a brick wall, while a child with a covered face and a witch costume stands beside them.


Photo courtesy Janiceia Adams

A man in California recently hung an effigy of President Obama in his yard as a Halloween decoration. When he was approached by the Secret Service about taking it down, he said he “didn’t mean for it to offend anyone.”

A photo recently surfaced of Canadian hockey player Tyler Bozak wearing blackface as part of his Michael Jackson Halloween costume. In a tweet addressing the controversy, Bozak said, “This is a tribute to one of my favorite artists! For anyone to call it racist is crazy!”

Whether or not you think these incidents are racist, they demonstrate a disturbing trend that I don’t like. For many people, Halloween is a day to imitate, romanticize or make fun of someone’s culture, race or ethnicity. There are folks who do this in explicitly inappropriate ways. There are many more that do this unintentionally, and do not understand that they are perpetuating stereotypes.

Last year, ABC News covered a protest campaign by Ohio University students against racist Halloween costumes. The campaign sought to generate awareness and dialogue about culturally insensitive costumes, such as dressing like a “stereotypical” Mexican, with a sombrero, poncho, and huge mustache. According to Ohio U. President Sarah Williams, “responses to the campaign were overwhelmingly positive and curious.” Some others, however, were "really negative and rooted in ignorance and white privilege.”

In another article reflecting on the Ohio University campaign, a writer from the Root notes, “from one perspective, that type of reaction—from those who lament that their racially themed fun would be ruined by having to consider its influence on others—is the most troubling and revealing part of this seasonal story. It's the view that a blackface Barack Obama is fine, so long as it's the garb of a supporter versus a Tea Partier. Or that a white Dallas Cowboys' cheerleader in a Lil Wayne getup gets a pass because her African-American friends posed for pictures with her.”

This is troubling to me. When is Halloween “fun” simply a mask to express racist feelings and attitudes? It seems that even people who dress up this way with innocent intentions are perpetuating harmful stereotypes that open the door for more sensational and inappropriate demonstrations of overtly racist attitudes.

Just think about what happened recently at the pep rally in Waverly, NY where three white students performed a skit in blackface depicting domestic violence between Rihanna and Chris Brown. According to CNN iReport’s Matthew Dishler, the audience “not only included students, but parents, faculty, and various members of the media, and community leaders. None of them stopped the skit.”

Why is all of this important to question? Let’s think about our kids. Wearing culturally insensitive costumes—even when the intent isn’t bad—sends a message to kids that perpetuating cultural stereotypes in the name of fun is ok. In doing so, we are in effect creating a culture of insensitivity at best, and overt malice, at worst.

This does not mean that we have to suck the fun out of dressing up for Halloween, but it does mean we should think about the feelings of others and take responsibility for the messages we are sending.  We want to model the values of caring, self-worth, and respect for our students.

At the end of the day, you become what you pretend to be. So when you give those cultural stereotypes free reign and excuse them in the name of “fun” you create an atmosphere that makes incidents like the Waverly pep rally ok. Use this checklist to figure out if your Halloween costume is contributing to an atmosphere of negativity.

It’s not too late to pretend to be something great!


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