As an example, costumes can easily be offensive by perpetuating stereotypes. Instances of people sporting blackface, sombreros or Keffiyeh are used to signify and demean particular cultures or races on a nearly annual basis. Just last year, a student wearing a costume “stereo-typically representing a person of color while another student pointed a gun at him” prompted community discussion at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
Costumes can also cross the line into cultural exploitation, which is when aspects of marginalized cultures are taken and used by dominant cultures for their own interests, often without context. During Halloween, this frequently happens when non-Native Americans wear war bonnets in costumes. In Native cultures, such head wear carries tremendous spiritual and political importance. It is worn only by tribe members appropriately acknowledged by their own people and generally during ceremonies.
Costumes that ignore current contexts are problematic, as well. As an example, last year a father caused panic at a Nebraskan mall’s Halloween event by wearing a black hooded robe and mask and carrying a duffel bag and fake rifle. The father received criticism from other parents, citing mass shootings around the nation as reason to be fearful of the costume.
Thinking it through
As students discuss their costumes or we think about our own, it’s helpful to ask some questions to ensure these costumes don’t impact others unintentionally and negatively.
* Is my costume based on someone’s race, ethnicity or culture?
* Does my costume contain spiritual or religious significance?
* Does my costume use stereotypes to make a joke or be sexy?
* Is my costume potentially distasteful or dangerous given the climate?
Some great resources exist to help students think through this subject. The University of Denver’s department of Housing and Residential Education has developed an informative student leader toolkit regarding privilege and cultural appropriation, including discussion questions, videos, articles and podcasts. Ohio University’s Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) organization created the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign to help foster dialogue, as well.
Have a fun, safe, and inclusive Halloween!