In the past, Halloween has been one of the least divisive holidays on the calendar, bringing friends together with activities such as pumpkin carving, apple-bobbing and the most popular of all—wearing costumes. Although it is meant to be fun and all-inclusive, Halloween has become one of the more offensive holidays on the calendar.
Costumes have always walked a tightrope trying to be sexy, funny and eye-catching, but by trying to be different, we’ve started to see costumes that cross lines. Often we fail to even notice it.
I don’t mean to say that we aim to offend others, but many of the costumes that have become popular in the last few years are more insensitive, and even racist, than we can sometimes tell, ranging from the “sexy burka,” refugee costumes and blackface Lil Wayne.
We might live in a post-Civil Rights era, but that should not be conflated with a post-racial one. When Halloween humor is garnered at someone else’s expense, it’s important to identify it. More than that, it should not be accepted.
Costumes that rely on stereotyping other cultures have become some of the most popular, but it is important that we become aware of the racism that has become a part of the holiday.
Many people who wear offensive Halloween costumes do not intend to be offensive—they just purchase something they find funny or cute in a store without thinking deeply about the message they are sending. They may even have respect for cultural differences and simply never have given a thought to the feelings other people might have about our “sexy Indian girl” costume.
A few years ago, I had a friend who was in the U.S. as a foreign exchange student describe how he felt after seeing someone wearing a Halloween costume that represented his cultural background. Although he wasn’t mad, he said he was offended because the person’s costume could not ever understand the depth of what it meant to be a part of his culture. He said that the costume was a misinterpreted stereotype that couldn’t portray reality. The person didn’t really understand what it meant to be a part of his culture—the customs, values or the repression he faces. He said that his reality, culture and identity are more than a costume could express, and that is why he found it offensive.
This idea, and others concerning the power that is often held by the costume-wearer over the culture the costume appropriates, is a relatively new topic of conversation. It is an issue that may seem less immediate than others; however, it is also one of the easiest to fix.
We generally accept the golden rule, “treat others as you would like to be treated,” as a measuring tool for ethics. If someone’s costume stereotyped your culture, would you be offended?
I’m not saying that we should avoid Halloween or that it can no longer be a fun holiday. We can still gather with friends participating in the traditional Halloween activities, having parties and wearing costumes. My intention is not to take away the Halloween festivities or even inconvenience you.
We live in a multicultural society. Many of us have friends and acquaintances with varying cultural backgrounds. This Halloween, simply ask yourself what message you are sending through your Halloween costume.
Does your costume mock other people for being “different” or outside of society’s accepted norms? It won’t take a lot of effort to think a bit more deeply about your costume this year and it definitely won’t take away the fun of Halloween.