Three Tips to Avoid Offensive Halloween Costumes

By Félix Pérez

Image courtesy of MDGovpics

Ghouls, ghosts, gremlins and goblins will soon be flittering among us. Children, students and adults alike will celebrate Halloween in all manner of costumes. Some zany, some clever, some scary, some funny, some that push boundaries, and, unfortunately, some that objectify and degrade a culture or community

The use of racist and culturally insensitive costumes in schools was the subject of national attention last year when a group of educators at a middle school in Idaho dressed up as a Mexican border wall that included the phrase, “Make America Great Again.” Other school staff wore sombreros, ponchos and fake mustaches.

In Iowa, a white elementary school teacher came under fire last year for wearing blackface to a Halloween party. In Atlanta, charter school administrators apologized after parents took issue with a Black history program in which second graders held up blackface masks. In New Jersey, a white high school teacher wore a Barack Obama mask, a Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” hat and a T-shirt with the words “Don’t Be A” with an image of a snowflake underneath.

More recently, a raft of politicians have come under withering criticism for donning blackface makeup. The caricature dates to the 1800s and is based on racist stereotypes that dehumanize Black people.

Other derogatory costumes include Native American headdresses, Nazi uniforms, scowling bearded masks with turbans or outfits that mimic traditional ethnic or religious dress.

Most people do not intentionally wear a costume that is offensive or racist. After all, Halloween is about fun. But regardless of intention, people still wear offensive costumes.

Here, then, are three tips when it comes to racist, offensive or culturally insulting costumes this Halloween.

  1. If in doubt, leave it out.
    Cultural appropriation: taking significant elements (symbols, dress, words, practices, etc.) from a culture not your own and removing all original context or meaning. Around Halloween, cultural appropriation often manifests in the form of wearing “costumes” that rely on specific culture signifiers or stereotypes. Dressing up as an ethnicity, race or culture not your own is racist. Educators can use examples of offensive costumes in the news as opportunities to foster constructive, productive dialogue with students.
  2. Be the example you would have wanted.
    As much as they might protest that educators do not understand their reality, students watch what educators say and do. Educators are central to creating a safe and affirming learning environment that honors the diverse cultures of their students and the world in which they live. And in today’s hyper-partisan and politically contentious environment, where communities of color feel under siege, students (see Idaho example above) can be further isolated and unwelcome by what they see and hear in their school and classroom.
  3. Would you wear the costume in front of people from that group?
    If not, then don’t do it. Does it mock, demean or create fear? We all make mistakes and exercise poor judgment from time to time. A little forethought, or asking a trusted colleague or friend, can go a long way.

Mia Moody-Ramírez, a professor of journalism and public relations at Baylor University, offers the following suggestions when choosing a Halloween costume.

  • Avoid dressing in a costume that will reflect another ethnicity or culture.
  • Choose something that is fun and tasteful – animals, movie characters (without darkening your skin), ghosts, ghouls, etc.
  • If you dress like someone of a different ethnicity/culture, don’t darken your face or emphasize features like eyes, teeth or noses.
  • Think about whether the costume will be perceived as tasteful or tasteless.
  • Use the grandmother test. If you post it on social media, would your grandmother be proud or disappointed?