What’s Your Costume?: Appropriation in Halloween Costumes

As Halloween draws near and students begin to select their costumes, it is important to remember that identities should not be treated as costumes. If a Halloween costume is trying to imitate another person’s identity or mock that identity, chances are it’s probably offensive. Some examples of this are more common than others, such as the use of blackface to portray a fictional character or celebrity. Regardless of one’s racial identity, people should not dress up as an individual of another race for a costume with the use of makeup to change the color of their skin temporarily. If a costume is for an individual who is not the same race as you, dress as that individual without using makeup or wigs to imitate another race or ethnicity.

“But what if my boyfriend and I want to go as [insert celebrity couple here]?”

It’s possible to dress as a celebrity or fictional character without the use of wigs and makeup that mimic that individual’s race or ethnicity. For example, if you and a friend want to go as a widely recognized celebrity couple, you can both dress up as the couple in such a way that your clothing will make it obvious who you are dressed as without using blackface, yellowface, or any other racially insensitive makeup and/or wigs.

“To treat a character like Batman or Superman as a Halloween costume is one thing, but to treat an entire ethnicity as a costume is something else. It suggests that people conflate the actual broad diversity of a culture with caricatures and characters.”- Jelani Cobb, author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.

Problematic Halloween costumes treat serious issues and individual identities as costumes and jokes. Identities are not costumes, and cannot be taken off at the end of the night. If the costume you have in mind for Halloween treats an identity as a joke, then it’s likely time for you to find a new costume. Individuals who hold these identities cannot take off their identities as though they were outfits and often are marginalized and discriminated against for having these identities. A person of color cannot change the color of their skin to avoid racial discrimination the way a white person can wipe off their blackface at the end of the night. A LGBTQ+ individual cannot change their gender and sexual identity to prevent acts of homophobia and transphobia the way a cisgender heterosexual individual who dresses as a trans woman for Halloween can. These costumes perpetuate stereotypes that are harmful and are tied to oppression from institutional forces as well as individuals.

These kinds of costumes should be avoided:

  • Racial stereotypes
  • Victims or perpetrators of a crime
  • Any costume that treats an identity characteristic as a costume

You can attend My Culture is Not a Costume, sponsored by the Center for Service, Spirituality and Social Justice, on Friday, October 28 from 12-1 on Britton Plaza to learn more.

These links also provide more information:

Written by Kitson Smyth ’17 and Yasmin Cooper ’18