For years one common theme I always come across during Halloween is the issue of “slutty costumes.” Well, not so much that I come across the issue—I often tend to be the person who initiates the arguments pertaining to the sexualization of women and the lack of creativity in women’s costumes. Men’s costumes are always so cool. They are either humorous, frightening, disturbingly gross, or they portray some sort of strength, whether it be physical strength or the impersonation of a powerful character. The majority of women’s costumes on the other hand, make no sense whatsoever. They are either sexy, sexy, scary, sexy, sexy, cute, or sexy. Ok, perhaps I am exaggerating a bit but I’m sure you get the point—the fact that many women are bothered by the “tradition” of Halloween being “the only day a girl can dress up like a slut and get away with it” is no breaking news, and this is not what I’m here to blog about.

I recently came across several articles and blog posts that speak of an embedded racism in Halloween costumes. All of the articles provided the same argument: dressing up as someone from another race or culture is racist. One of the articles even went as far as saying that it is racist to dress up dogs in cultural or racial attire (“Can we at least agree that it’s racist to dress your dog up like a racial caricature?”) Now, my question to you is: can we really say that dressing up as someone from a different culture is a racist thing? Does it have to be racist? I think that the argument that  dressing up as someone of another culture is racist is the equivalent of arguing that a woman who dresses up as a man (or vice versa) is sexist. These bloggers are not only asking the wrong questions about race and ethnicity, but they are also exaggerating and misinterpreting the issue of racism altogether.

One of the articles, titled “Students campaign against racist Halloween costumes” attempts to demonstrate racial and cultural stereotypes by displaying images of  individuals who belong to a certain race or culture, holding up pictures of people dressed up in costumes that are considered “offensive” to that race or culture (you may view the article by clicking its title). The images also contain the following slogan in capital letters: “We’re a culture, not a costume. This is who I am, and this is not okay.” What I found the striking about the article was not the images themselves, but rather the implications that were connected to each image. The first image for example, is that of a young man from Middle Eastern descent, holding up a picture of a man dressed up as a suicide bomber (see image here). Underneath the image was the following argument:“This outfit implies that Middle Eastern people are all terrorists and suicide bombers. Obviously they’re not, and this costume is hurtful.” Though I agree that the costume may be hurtful to some, I thought that the implication of it as portraying all Middle-Easterners to be terrorists to be a little extreme. Yes, dressing up as a Middle Eastern terrorist may be ethically or morally offensive, but does it really imply racism towards all Middle Easterners?

Another image in the article consisted of a girl of Asian descent holding up the picture of a woman dressed up in a Geisha outfit (see it here). The description bellow the image was also a bit far-fetched: “We all know that Asian women are beautiful and submissive, right? WRONG! This is not paying positive tribute, this is poking fun at a race.” Just because a person may want to dress up as a Geisha does not mean that this specific person thinks that all Asian women are submissive! If one looks at the image of a Geisha with a “western” lens and associates her profession with that of a prostitute, then yes, perhaps a Geisha will undoubtedly be viewed as submissive. But if one puts his stereotypes aside and considers the actual culture behind Geishas, then one would make no association between a modern Geisha and a submissive woman. It is important to understand that a Geisha in Japan is not the equivalent of the stereotypical, illegal, American prostitute (who probably sells her body so that she can make “easy bucks” or “go shoot up heroin”).  Modern day Geishas are not submissive; they are talented, high class entertainers (read more about Geishas here).  Perhaps the message below the image of what is wrong with a Geisha costume should not have been the implication that a Geisha outfit is racist because it will make everyone think that Asian women are submissive, but rather that “children sometimes get sold into the Geisha profession and that is not ok.”

Another article that associated Halloween costumes with racism (“Racist Halloween Costumes” by Lisa Wade) argued that ‘Halloween costumes come in three categories: scary, funny, or fantastical.  This is why dressing up like another “race” or “culture” for Halloween is racist.’  I couldn’t disagree more. Dressing up like a teacher for example, is neither funny, scary nor fantastical. Does that make it offensive? No. Therefore, we can’t justify cultural costumes as being racist on the basis that they do not fit the mystical, funny, or scary category. There are other costumes that also do not fit the categories but are not considered offensive– ninja, cowboy, police officer, firefighter are a just few examples.

The article by Lisa Wade also provides a quote demonstrating a blogger’s opposition to “Indian” costumes:

Why is it socially acceptable to dress like the stereotypical Indian: “Brave”,”Chief”, “Princess”, “Squaw”, “Maiden”? Pardon Moi, but when did the Native American enter the realm of Wizards, Fairies, Super-heroes, Goblins, or Ghouls? When did it become ok to reduce the diversity, language, and culture of nearly 500 different Indigenous tribes into a tacky “costume” of cheap suede, colored feathers, plastic beads, and fringe? Who decided that the history, identity, and lineage of Native Americans could be easily put on and taken off like greasy Halloween face paint?

I do not understand why individuals find the need to generalize dressing up as a different race or culture as racist. I think we need to evaluate the context of the situation. Do you think that dressing up like Cleopatra, or as Roman Emperor has any negative connotation or is perceived as racist? Probably not. So why would it be racist to dress up as an “Indian”, or tribal chief or as a Mariachi singer?  Halloween has long lost its “realm of Wizards, Fairies, Super-heroes, Goblins, or Ghouls.”  It is about being something that you are obviously not. Yes, I agree that not all native Indians wore beads and colorful feathers, but is it really racist if someone decides to dress up as a native American who perhaps did wear them? I don’t think the problem lies in the fact that one is dressing up as someone from a different culture, but rather that there is a lack of creativity and variety in the fabrication of the costumes that are sold to the consumers.

I also think that the racism in Halloween costumes does not so much have to do with costume itself, but rather with the labels that we are being applied to those costumes.  If you follow the link to article and look at the images, you will see that some of the costumes are simply traditional attires worn by groups of individuals in certain cultures.  I agree that the names (“Mexican Man,” “tighty whitey”) we give these costumes are racist, but the costumes themselves are not.  Naming a costume “Mexican man” just because it includes a straw hat and a colorful pancho may be racist, but dressing up in a traditional Mexican attire is not.

In order to say whether or not dressing up as someone from another culture or race is racist, individuals should stop thinking dichotomously and consider the context of the situation– is the outfit making fun or criticizing a particular race or culture, or is it simply “copying” one of its many traditional attires? A costume does not tell the whole picture of a culture, and these authors and bloggers should think a little deeper about the issue, choose their words more carefully and not jump to conclusions. Many people will agree that “Strawberry shortcake,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “little red riding hood” costumes purchased from a Ricky’s store are not representative of these fictional characters, the same way that cultural costumes purchased from the same store are not representative of the cultures. People need to lighten up, and focus on racism where it really does exist.

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About Amanda B.

I'm a senior at Hunter College, City University of New York, majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology. Topics that concern me the most include the overall well-being of children with developmental disabilities, issues concerning women and minority rights, and the misconceptions and discrepancies of the media and its influence in our society. Some quotes that motivate me: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter" -MLK "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function" - F. Scott Fitzgerald “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind." - Ghandi

One response

  1. I agree and if that quote up there is to be taken into account, why have costumes at all? I definitely see what you are saying. A costume is just a minuscule, if at all, representation of some culture or tradition. It is undoubtedly our associations with these costumes that place them into the realm of racism. Not all Mexicans, actually I do not think any, walk around in ponchos and straw hats. Actually, I would like to know where this type of dress comes from. A stereotype(s), which is what costumes try to point out, may only be applicable to a handful of people, and usually loosely, in a society.