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Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?

By Karen on October 26, 2011

Photo courtesy Ohio University

What are you going to be for Halloween?

It’s a question we ask and answer over and over again at this time of year, whether we will be taking our children trick-or-treating for the first time, or trying to out-do our friends at the annual costume party.  And there are many of us that put quite a bit of effort into Halloween costumes – making a child’s costume by hand, spending too much money on a store-bought outfit or wracking our brains to come up with something clever and original that will have people talking until next Halloween.

But this year, a group of students at Ohio University would like us to think about something else when we are planning our Halloween costumes, and have come out with a campaign to help us do just that.

We’re a Culture, Not a Costume is a poster campaign launched by Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS), and has each of several posters featuring students of various cultural backgrounds holding pictures depicting people dressed up in stereotypical and racist garb. In one poster, a woman of Asian descent holds up a picture of somebody dressed as a Geisha. “This is not who I am and this is not OK” the poster proclaims. It’s a strong message, and not surprisingly, the campaign has gone viral, exploding on Facebook and in other social media channels.

And while many of the images are disturbing (the student of Arab descent holding up the poster of somebody dressed as a Sheik-come-suicide bomber is particularly unsettling), I have to admit, I am unsure of where exactly – when it comes to Halloween costumes at least – the line that separates parody and archetype from  racism, is drawn.

I would probably not have thought of somebody dressed up as a Geisha as somebody being insensitive to Japanese culture. Why that is, exactly, I’m not sure. Because the misogynistic or enslaving implications of Geisha culture outweigh the racist ones? Because Geisha is no longer widely practiced and therefore already in the realm of parody and history but not stereotype? Because I am too ignorant to fully understand the implication? Like I said, I’m not sure.

There are definitely costumes that should never be worn, for cultural reasons. Dressing up as a Nazi comes to mind as about offensive a costume as you can get, but how many cave-dwelling Osama Bin Ladens do you think there will be at the Legion this year? Anybody with access to some combat fatigues and wig can go as Gadhaffi, and I’m pretty sure he’d get a few good guffaws. Their death count may not have been as high or as swift as Hitler’s, but genocide is genocide and I doubt people need to see any despot’s party tricks.

Does intention or model, I wonder, have any bearing on precisely how racist one should perceive a costume? I would cringe at the site of an ‘Indian Chief’ costume, all headdress and war paint and animal skin pants, but what about the dress and raven-hued hair of the hero princess Pocahontas?  I’ve already said that I have an issue with somebody dressed as an Arab sheik (bombs or not), but what about a little girl donning the costume of her beloved Jasmine? Is it ok if Disney does it first?

Last year, I dressed up as one of four sister wives at the inaugural Blissdom Canada Costumes and Karaoke party, something that could have been seen as offensive to a member of the Mormon Church. We knew that was a possibility, but quite frankly, dismissed our uncertainties almost immediately because we felt that parody trumped cultural insensitivity, and we went on to become some of the most widely talked-about masqueraders there.

This year, my group went as Georgian zombies, which should probably have only offended the most die-hard of Jane Austen enthusiasts, but are we now to scrutinize every costume for potential of offense? Perhaps the answer is a resounding yes, but I also wonder about (note – wonder about, not condone) the notion of turning even the most innocent of intentions into cause for alarm. I’m just glad that my own kids’ Halloween costumes are already decided. Hopefully the dragon and Bat Girl won’t get anybody’s ire up.

So what do you think as Halloween draws ever nearer? Is this about cultural sensitivity, or are we just being oversensitive?



  1. mumby says:

    I think you’re right to consider *some* unacceptable (even if the 3d in line for British throne tried it once…) But you do have to go into H’ween or any costume party with a sense of humour. If anyone with Jersey Shore, Gosselin or sister-wife sensitivities wants to pick a fight, they shouls start with TLC.
    I for one have been eagerly anticipating a showdown with the Gnome community. Either I can’t hear or see them cuz I’m too old and cynical or they didn’t mind my parody of Gnome culture.

    • It’s a slippery slope, right? I mean, I wouldn’t think twice about wearing a Greek Goddess costume, but would really not ilke it if somebody dressed as Yentl (as @emmawaverman pointed out to me). Is there a difference?

      BTW – you guys were the best freakin’ gnomes ever. I still laugh thinking about it.
      karengreeners´s last [type] ..The Politics

  2. kittenpie says:

    I like the campaign in that it gets people thinking , and makes a good point about those times when people are being insensitive or portraying a negative stereotype. I think it is, as you are exploring here, a VERY grey area, and one in which the lines are very subjective and personal. Perhaps that girl would be offended by someone dressed as a Geisha, yet it is pretty common in Japan for tourists to get fully dressed as Geisha for pictures – by people in Japan. Does this make it okay? Or are those Japanese people selling out their own culture in a way that is offensive? Hard to say…

    Here, my worst problem is trying to keep up with changing minds, because Bun, who was hell-bent on being a rocket ship, is now saying, “No thank you. I want to be a ghost, please.” Which means I may be bald enough to build a costume around that once I finish ripping all my hair out.
    kittenpie´s last [type] ..100% Mindblown

    • It is definitely a grey area. Funny anecdote for you: A friend of the family insisted that for Halloween 1982 (or maybe ’83) he HAD to be ET. Of course, all the ET costumes were sold out, it being so popular, so his mom spent hours and hours sewing an ET costume for his son. She was so proud of it when it was done, and couldn’t wait to show him. He loved it, but right before he was going trick or treating, he said, Ok, mom, now the sheet. She had no idea what he was talking about or why he would want to cover up the lovely costume she had sweated over. Because, he explained, ET was a ghost for Halloween!
      karengreeners´s last [type] ..The Politics

  3. Sandrat says:

    For me I must go with the minority person’s point of view. I cannot tell them whether or not to feel offended – similarly to when considering whether to tell a racial joke or not. I can mock my own racial/ethnic group but not someone else’s.

    At the end if the day there are so many other costume choices so why go with one that could offend someone from another race or culture or ethnic group? Why risk it?

    As an aside, I’d be fine with Yentl but Shylock or a Rabbi or an Orthodox woman/man, not so much.

  4. Sandy says:

    Interesting topic. I don’t really know how I feel about it. I’m pretty lighthearted about Halloween and don’t take it too seriously. I can appreciate how some ‘extreme’ costumes would offend people though. My husband dressed as Jesus last year. My mom is VERY religious, and when she saw him all she said was, “Let’s hope he lives his life as well as Jesus did.” and then she posed for a picture. I think ultimately it’s pretty harmless. The idea is to put on a costume. I wouldn’t be offended if someone dressed as an old Portuguese woman in an apron, black veil on her head with a rosary in her hands.

    • I think your mother’s attitude is fantastic. A sense of humour is important to have, but of course, she knew her son-in-law’s personality and therefore knew that the intention behind the costume was good-natured. But what happens when we don’t know the person or the intention under the costume?
      karengreeners´s last [type] ..The Politics

  5. Sandrat says:

    As an aside, it’s often the dominant group expecting the subordinate group to “lighten up” about such things. I don’t know how easy it is as a dominant group member to understand why someone from a subordinate group is offended. I don’t think it’s their role to educate or justify their feelings- if in doubt, pick something else to wear.

  6. Danielle says:

    While I think it’s in bad taste to randomly choose a racial stereotype and use it for a costume (except for the Geisha the ones above are just seem mean spirited) it really depends on your audience and timing.
    Danielle´s last [type] ..Nutella and Cream Cheese Fruit Dip

  7. Angella says:

    After we talked about you writing this in our group email, I saw a post in my Reader that made me cringe. A Mom dressed all four of her kids as “Indians”, complete with the feather headpiece, etc.

    I grew up in a Northern BC community with a lot of First Nations friends and was offended on their behalf.

  8. I guess it all depends on the intent. If someone wears a costume in gest and does not make reference to some sort of political commentary or racial slur, I don’t see the harm in it. But, if the costume is accompanied by some harsh words, or blatant rasist remarks, then I think we can all agree the costume is probably only the beginning of the problem.

    I don’t think the Geisha outfit should be considered racist because there are still millions of asian women who dress exactly like that on several occasions during the year. That look doesn’t necessarily mean Geisha. Niether is the Mexican person riding a donkey. That’s just a stupid costume, it’s not racist. If you dressed up as a mexican standing next to a home depot sign, that might be more of a cultural slur.
    Daddy by Default´s last [type] ..Email Scams and How to Avoid Them

  9. Aussie says:

    I just wonder to what extent people are feeling offended by costumes as per the examples given in the posters. Is this not just a case of the overly politically correct telling everyone how offended they should be?

    Speaking as an Australian, we get the drunk, thong-wearing, stubby-holding, cork-hat wearing negative stereo-type thrown in our face all the time…and don’t get me started with the ‘crazy scot’ kilt and red hair costume I have seen a million times over (my parents are from Scotland and I spent a lot of time there growing up so consider it a second home). I find them tedious but not offensive, even though they are both negative, poorly constructed parodies of cultures that I hold close to my heart. It would surprise me that any of the people in the posters would do anything but roll their eyes at the silly costumes.

    The only halloween costume that I have every seen that I have found offensive is the one of a ‘dead’ Steve Irwin (Crocodile Hunter) complete with stingray hanging out of the chest. He was, and still is, a local hero here and to see people make fun of his death – particularly given he has young children who could see it – is horrible.