Pick Me!

A weblog by Laura Moncur


When Costumes Are Racist

Filed under: Halloween — Laura Moncur @ 10:00 am

Last year the Ohio University STARS launched a campaign called, “We’re A Culture, Not A Costume.” Here are the posters they created.

Culture Not Costume KahlidCulture Not Costume Kai Lee

Culture Not Costume RanatoCulture Not Costume Seth

Culture Not Costume TaylorI love Halloween, so when I think of many of the costumes that I’ve worn, I wonder if I had been a racist with any of them. Where is the line drawn? There are those who have wondered why a white guy with a photo of a cowboy wasn’t included. Why is the cowboy costume not offensive?

I think the difference is when you dress up as a person of another nationality or culture it can be perceived as ridicule. Even if you never meant it that way, it can feel like the costume has boiled an entire culture down to a stereotype. So a geisha costume reminds an Asian girl of every time a guy expected her to be subservient just because of her appearance.

When is it alright to dress up as another nationality? Is it ever?

Personally, I think the line is not with intent. There are few people out there who set out to offend or harm anyone. None of us intend to hurt people’s feelings, so saying that you didn’t mean to offend someone with your costume is not enough.

I think you are safer with a costume depicting a specific person, such as Sayuris, the heroine of Memoirs of a Geisha, rather than just a normal geisha girl. Of course, it would take conversation and explanation to get this idea across and those are hard pressed in a noisy Halloween party. In the end, you may still offend someone.

Stacey Halloween 2003 by LauraMoncur from FlickrIn fact, MANY of our costumes from the past could be offensive to people. The year Stacey came as an old lady with a walker and offered linty candy and used tissues to people could be called ageist. Dressing up as a hippie, a tourist or a goth could be offensive. The costume staples of princess, cheerleader and kitty cat could be considered sexist. It seems that there are very few costumes that could NOT be construed as an insult.

So, how do you dress up without hurting someone’s feelings? Here are a few tips:

  • When in doubt, throw it out: If you are worried that someone might look at your costume and think that you’re a racist, then DON’T wear it. That inkling of intuition is there for a reason. Find another costume.

  • Choose fiction over reality: If you dress up as Mr. Spock, Harry Potter or Shrek, no one can accuse you of offending them, even if they are a highly logical geek, fantasy nerd or Scottish bore.

  • Choose historical figures over anonymous people: Dressing up as Martin Luther King Jr. is VERY different than dressing up as a random black man.

  • If you have to do elaborate makeup to change your appearance, you might be toeing the line: Covering your entire face with makeup to make your skin a different color, altering the shape of your eyes and even wearing a wig might be enough to offend someone. The more you need to change your appearance, the more likely your costume may be perceived as offensive.

Halloween is supposed to be FUN and thinking about whether your costume will offend someone can take some of the fun out of the preparations, but making a costume that hurts the feelings of a friend can suck the fun out of any evening. Take the time to be sensitive about your costume choice and you’ll ensure an evening of fun for EVERYONE.

Of course, sometimes Halloween just needs to be for fun:

Hermione is a culture not a costume?



  1. I feel like traditionally negatively perceived stereotype costumes are in terrible taste and consideration, but coming from a Japanese family no one would take issue with a geisha. Geisha’s do not represent the entirety of asian culture, let alone Japanese culture. It is a way of life/profession. A specifically sexed- up Geisha would offend me, and should everyone really, because of the recent dominance of overly sexualized halloween costumes, but as a Japanese woman I fail to see how it is any better or worse than going as a ninja or even fireman.

    Comment by Biz — 10/27/2012 @ 10:57 am

  2. If we start seeing racist issues everywhere, we’ll end up insane. Ethnic costumes as Haloween disguises have to do with exoticism. Exoticism is not racism. Exoticism is, in a way, the very acceptance that some are different -which is the point of antiracism. The “Not OK” pictures you show try to tell us not that different is acceptable, but that different does not exist: that the normal Arab/Asian/African/whoever dresses up just like you and me. Well, that’s not true! There are Arabs and Asians who do dress exotic, and who are perfectly normal. We don’t want a stupid monotonous world where everyone, from no matter where, wears a T-shirt.

    Not everything white westerners do is racist. Not everything white westerners do is wrong. Relax, don’t feel guilty for everything. It won’t help for cases where there is something really wrong.

    Besides all that, even if you dress up as a cowboy or a fireman, you have to somehow ridicule it. The point is to be funny, not to be taken for a real fireman. Does this show disrespect towards fiermen? No, it shows that I have no problem to show up in a funny disguise; that my own self-respect is not being threatened by a ridiculous disguise.

    The fact that certain days of the year are dedicated to such customs, that could be taken as (but are actually not) offensive towards other people’s dignity and our own, is the product of thousands of years of wisdom and collective experience. No fanatic “antiracist” don Quixote should think he/she knows better.

    Comment by Pepe — 1/23/2013 @ 2:46 pm

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