Are Hallowe’en Costumes Racist?

Hallowe'en, costumes, racism, culture

STAR's campaign against racism

If you’re on Facebook you might have seen this picture all ready, circulating all over and many jumping on the politically correct bandwagon and saying, don’t do this. Don’t be insensitive. It was a poster done by STAR (Students and Teachers Against Racism) out of Ohio.

I’ll probably get shot over what I’m going to say here. I’m very much against racism and bigotry but I believe this is a case of mixing apples and oranges. First let’s look at Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve, when it was believed that the veils between the worlds thinned and that ghosts and creatures of the underworld walked the night. It was a time when the world grew dark, lands were bereft of food and animals slaughtered for the winter larders. Back far enough, primitive peoples probably wondered if the sun would come back, if they had offended it somehow. That’s why there were always festivals of light on the winter solstice, when the longest night arrived and then the days grew longer. No one knew if it was gods or not.

Hallowe’en’s Celtic name is Samhain (sow-en) and as time went by it became a time to dress children in costumes; scary creatures, ghosts, goblins, skeletons and other things that go bump in the night. It evolved to other costumes but there is a long and complex history of Hallowe’en, with trick or treating, guising, asouling or in costume. Masquerades have existed for centuries.

So dressing up is part of Hallowe’en and has been so for a long time. Now the pictures above have a child of (I’m presuming) African-American, Japanese, Mexican and Arab ethnic groups. They each hold up a picture of a cartoon or a person in costume and it says “This is not who I am and it is not okay.” The top says We’re a culture, not a costume.” And indeed all cultures are very complex.

costume, Halloween, stereotyping, racism, racial stereotyping

Creative Commons: Dutch regional this racist?

This campaign was started to stop racial stereotyping, which is a good thing and all airports and police should really pay heed to that. Now the Arab costume has the guy wearing a bomb, as a terrorist I suppose. That is extremely in poor taste, just as dressing like the World Trade Center with a plane flying into you would be. So that costume needs to be tossed. The other pictures have a guy on a donkey, and a Geisha girl. They are indeed stereotypes. They are of earlier eras when in fact there were some people who dressed this way. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t unusual, it was the way it was. They were part of the culture of the time. Just as wearing a dress with a white linen apron, a cap with tips out and wooden shoes was a traditional Dutch costume. Stereotypes start as types.

I doubt there are few people who would put on a costume of a sailor, or a turbaned Maharajah, or of a witch (image from here) and presume that is the way people dress now and that all of a race are like this. Yes, I add witch because branches of neopaganism (Wicca) have members called witches. While there might be a few pagans who get upset at the stereotypical green-skinned witch dressed in black with a wart on her nose as a costume, most will keep a level head and understand that people don’t see them this way.

witch, costume, racism, racial stereotyping

Creative Commons: Is wearing this witch mask racism or bigotry?

I think we need to understand that dressing up in a costume from cultural history (whether a Hawaiian hula dancer, an Aztec king, a French prince, a Viking, a Chinese Mandarin…) does not mean we presume that all people of a particular race look or dress this way. It is part of history and traditional dress used in various festivals to this day imitate those costumes of long ago. Of the four pictures above, the terrorist one is wrong, the other two are historical aspects of a culture, and the last one is what in terms of racism? A person should not be bitten by a vampire? Is it racial stereotyping of vampires or black people because vampires only go after them? I don’t think I understand that one and would it be better or the same if a white person was being bitten? Dressing as a member of the Ku Klux Klan would be very tasteless and downright dangerous in some ares, though it would indeed be scary.

So what is right and wrong here? Hallowe’en does not say to treat all costumed people as bigots or racists, nor does it support racism. It doesn’t emulate racial stereotyping. It does let a person dress up. If First Nations went as a cowboy, and a white person as an Indian, would that be wrong, or just having fun with stereotypes of old?



Filed under Culture, entertainment, history, people

7 responses to “Are Hallowe’en Costumes Racist?

  1. The poster in the upper left is racist because the “black” person in the photo is a white person in blackface (not to mention the “gangsta” outfit). It has nothing to do with the vampire.

  2. I think the point of the poster (and I may be wrong) is that if you’re dressing up as someone of a different culture during Halloween, it’s probably not being done out of respect. The geisha costume might be authentic and beautiful, but Halloween also might not be the best time for it. I agree with you that the vampire picture is kind of confusing (at least to me).

    • colleenanderson

      It’s not necessarily being done out of disrespect either. So if Halloween isn’t the right time, when is the right time? I’ve worn a “Gypsy” costume in the past. I wasn’t disrespecting the Rom. It was a trope, a stereotype, an icon, not a bad one, just something I’m not.

  3. Eli hathaway

    I have to say this is one of the most extreme cases of political correctness gone wrong I’ve ever seen. To me this isn’t against racism, it’s promoting racial division…so you have to dress up as someone from the same race and same culture as you??? I was going to go as a Samurai but to these people I guess that would be racist!

    • colleenanderson

      Yes, indeed. And thus why I think it’s more an attack against Halloween than it is about racism. Since I’m going as someone who will most likely be mistaken as Marie Antoinette, I guess all the French will say, That’s not who I am. But maybe it’s acceptable because she was white and so am I.

  4. rautakyy

    I think you are right. But if this is the worst result of political correctness, it is rather mild in comparrison when political incorrectness causes its worse results. Hence, it is OK for people to seek for the political correctness. They may not allways hit the spot, but it is not very dangerous.

    There are allways people who get upset by just about anything. As an European, if I dress up as a knight am I supporting racial and cultural tradition of my own culture? If I dress up as a crusader, is that representing bad taste and cultural hegemony of my ancestors. The guy who dresses up as an arab with a bomb might just as well be trying to say this stereotype is ridiculous.

    Maybe everybody should be able to recognize that a fancy dress party is not about enforcing stereotypes, but rather to make them look just as silly as they actually are. But there is a reason why these posters do not include a stereotype of the white race. In a culture that produces people to be offended by the stereotyping of their races and respective cultures, there is an assumption of normality by being white. That the stereotype added to one particular race has somehow nothing to be offended by. If someone were to dress up as a redneck white conservative male (scary, eh), would any white people be offended by it in any way? Would they campaign against such abuse of a stereotype? No, because they think they have the upper hand of being generally not seen as part of that stereotype, rather to be part of a stereotype that gives them the role to be the norm of the society. So, if people are sensetive for certain types of stereotyping, it is the result of actual abuse and labeling they have to face.

    Here in Finland our traditional harvest feast in this time of the year is “kekri”, but it is rarely celebrated any more. I believe that the hallowe’en is even more familiar to the modern Finns. It is a shame really, how we have let the anglo-american culture to overwhelm our own culture.

    During kekri it was traditional for the yougsters to dress up as “kekripukki”. To turn fur overcoat over and wear a mask resembling a “pukki” that is a goat mask made from straws, and to scare people. Nobody does that anymore. It was also traditional to wear such masks during “joulu” wich is our equal to X-mass, but that masquarade has been surplaced by the cola company red and white santa, though we still call him “joulupukki” as if he was some sort of goat.

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