‘If you have doubts, don’t wear it’: the politics of Halloween costumes

Halloween costumes deemed offensive often carry themes of cultural appropriation of ethnic groups such as African Americans, Native Americans and global cultures. Photo by Kali Hoffman, photo editor

An endless list clutters news headlines every year detailing offensive Halloween costumes worn during the fall season. From celebrities like Julianne Hough to politicians like Justin Trudeau, blackface has a prominent presence on the list of Halloween discretions.

College students wearing offensive Halloween costumes have sparked discussion on how to dress up for the holiday while still being respectful. Given America’s history of blackface in racist minstrel shows, the phenomenon is considered culturally insensitive to African-Americans and other minority populations. As Chapman students gear up for Halloween-themed parties this coming ‘Halloweekend,’ freshman vocal performance major Claire Manson said people can dress up as whatever they want, but should be mindful of a costume-choice being offensive to people.

“It’s important to be aware because if you’re being offensive, then that’s just putting people down,” Manson said. “As a community, we’re supposed to be lifting each other up instead of hurting people.”

Ruben Espinoza, a sociology professor, said that as a general rule, there is no need to dress up as any ethnic group. Yet vague costumes like ‘Native American Princess’ still find their place in inventories for costume stores like Party City. Halloween is meant to make light of something and people shouldn’t be using an ethnicity to do that, Espinoza said.

“You’re promoting something by wearing that costume and you’re saying it’s OK to make fun of these people or make light of an ethnic group,” he said. “With anything, what you decide to buy or what type of artist you listen to, all of those are decisions that are ultimately social or political.”

Manson said that dressing up as something transphobic, something with ties to cultural stereotypes or blackface draws a hard line that Halloween-goers shouldn’t cross when preparing their costumes. At the same time, Espinoza said that it should be common sense on what is appropriate to wear and that oftentimes, the issue is that people are being offensive on purpose.

“There are obvious costumes that are absolutely offensive in every which way that you can think about it and the people who wear them are fully aware of that – it’s not necessarily a lack of education or a misunderstanding,” Espinoza said. “Of all the many costumes that are out there, you can be a werewolf, a witch, whatever it is; why is it that someone would choose to dress up as an ethnicity or social group that has been historically marginalized?”

He added that dressing up as a pop-culture figure who happens to be a different ethnicity than the person wearing the costume isn’t always offensive, if done the right way. Chelsey Cortes, a sophomore biochemistry major, said it isn’t difficult to figure out if a costume may be offensive. Her rule of thumb: if you have doubts, don’t wear it.

“It doesn’t take that long to do a little bit of research, just to click on a few little links,” she said. Espinoza believes that brushing off offensive costumes as a lack of education or being unaware is not an excuse.

“If you want to give people the benefit of the doubt, you can say it’s carelessness or cluelessness, but the reality of it is, we’re in 2019 now. Something like this shouldn’t be a conversation, really,” Espinoza said.

Halloween is coming up in a few days and when picking out that “perfect costume,” Mason said that it’s important to be aware and respectful of what you’re wearing.

“There are plenty of costumes out there,” she said. “You don’t need to choose one that would make people upset.”