Racist Halloween costumes: Geez, can’t you take a joke?

Baby in dreadlocks cap | Mom-101


Over the past few weeks, my daughters have been driving me insanely batty over Halloween costumes. Evidently nine is the age at which you want to express your independence and go as “your own thing,” while seven is the age at which you want to come up with something collaborative with your older sister or friend as a sign of solidarity. Fun times.

While I was brainstorming with Sage about what she could be (I’m voting for Zombie Elsa and Zombie Anna, but so far, I can’t convince her that my ideas are always awesome) she suggested that she and her best friend could go as each other.

I asked her how exactly she planned on dressing like her friend, bracing myself for the answer I knew was coming.

“Well, I could put brown face paint on my face…” she started, before I cut her off.

Her best friend was born in Ethiopia.

Should you ever be interested in explaining the offensive history of blackface and minstrelsy to a child and doing it in the most awkward way possible, I can give you my exact script at some later date.

Eventually, I did manage to stumble into the main points I always aim to drive home when we talk about race at home: People used to be less sensitive to other people. We keep learning from each other. We know more now than we used to about other people’s feelings. As history goes on, we become better about the things we do and say because we don’t want to hurt anyone.

I learned from all of you a while ago, in response to an offhanded comment of mine, that there is no colorblindness.  It’s something we all have to address, even and especially as white people are afraid to talk about race. And yesterday, I ran across a thoughtful post by Kristen Howerton about racist Halloween costumes which seemed like a great place to start.

She offers some common sense guidelines from a mom with a multi-racial family. Like, if you’re dressing as a specific person–Obama, Bruce Lee, Lil Kim, the Dali Lama–it’s preferable to dressing as a stereotype from a specific race. Or if you realize you’re appropriating racial features for your costume, then maybe skip that part. Pretty sensible to me.

Now of course there’s a lot of nuance and gray area in the discussion and I find I’m asking myself a lot of questions.

Is it okay to wear dreadlocks if you’re dressed as Bob Marley? Is it okay to put a baby in one of those dreadlocks caps if he’s white? What if he’s not white?  Is it okay to wear a prosthetic nose if you’re dressing like Barbra Streisand? Do you get a pass if you’re a drag queen? Is it okay to wear a traditional East Indian sari that your aunt brought back from a trip there? Then if you add a bindi, does it make it authentic or racist? What if you dress as Selena Gomez wearing a bindi?

Also, is it okay to wear all black and carry around sixteen different take-out menus if you’re dressing up as me?

(Answer to the last one: Yes. But if you stuff your bra with watermelons, then you’re going too far.)

I don’t think it’s easy to figure out. But I do think it is important that we at least try to soul search a bit and have a respectful conversation without getting all YOU’RE RUINING HALLOWEEN WITH YOUR POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND SCREW YOU IF YOU CAN’T TAKE A JOKE.

Racist Halloween costume commentary on Facebook

As if the original point of All Hallow’s Eve was to make fun of people from other countries and dress up like Slutty M&Ms.

Look, I get the knee-jerk defensiveness to some degree. I think back to my kindergarten Tiger Lily costume that I loved so much, and I wonder whether it would be in horrible taste to post that image on Instagram as a Throwback Thursday photo. I think about the kids who went as hobos every year at my school, along with the geisha girls, the harem dancers and the gypsies and the Mexicans in sombreros. Obviously none of it was intended to offend then. But? That’s the definition of progress. We learn. We move forward.

When was the last time you told your kid a Polish joke?


So how do we figure out where to draw the line between make-believe and mockery? How do we  preserve some of the humor and irreverence that can make Halloween fun, without doing things that make it wildly uncomfortable for others? I’m still trying to work out my own boundaries so I know how to share them with my kids. Fortunately for me, their latest idea has to do with mythological goddesses, and I’m fairly sure that togas don’t offend any Greeks.

Oh. And while I’m in a semi-ranty state, can we just let the pejorative term politically correct die the slow death of every other early 90’s era phrase? Sensitivity to other people has nothing at all to do with politics and everything to do with humanity. Thanks Dawg.


21 thoughts on “Racist Halloween costumes: Geez, can’t you take a joke?”

  1. I get off easy because my kids always want to be animals. (This year we have a pigeon, a snowy owl, and a tapejara–yes I had to look the last one up.) But I told them how lots of kids used to dress up as hobos when I was a kid because it was an easy costume and they were horrified. We volunteer at a soup kitchen once a month, and and they couldn’t imagine doing something that essentially mocked homeless people.

    I think for me that would be the line: Does the “joke” put down someone vulnerable? Are you doing something the figure you’re emulating would find cruel in some way? A decent person at that point should have enough imagination to come up with something else. We should aspire to better than that in our regular lives and in costumes that are supposed to be fun.

    I think it’s wonderful your daughter wanted to dress up as her friend. It is a shame that to do so at this point in history means something different than she would intend. Good for you for providing her with context to know why it’s out of bounds.

    1. That’s a really smart way to think of it, Korinthia – not putting down someone vulnerable.

      I was amazed to see some people on Kristen’s Facebook thread suggest that if you don’t let kids be anything at all, you’re “stifling their creativity.” Kids are inherently way more creative than we are; tell them they can’t be a hobo, guaranteed they’ll have another idea in about a second.

  2. I love this. So much about this. Especially the “is it okay to wear all black and carry around sixteen different take-out menus if you’re dressing up as me?”
    Thank you for helping me see the world through a less narrow lens time and time again, while simultaneously giving me fits of giggles.

  3. Lumpyhead wants to be Draco Malfoy for Halloween, but I won’t let him paint his face white and he’s super-annoyed at me right now.

    1. Oh, my kids could think of other reasons not to be Malfoy for Halloween. But then, give them a year or two to realize sometimes the villains are more fun.

  4. I want to live in the world when a 7 yr old can be her best friend for Halloween including brown makeup and no one bats an eye. I remember thinking how annoying it was that in February of my eldest childs kindergarten year when I had to further explain black history month. Until that moment, people were just people. I am grateful it hasnt changed who her friends are…and they are from every part of the world. I love that both my girls have to dig deep into the friend well to find white girls like us. 🙂 For the record, this year my girls will be a girlie Perry the Platypus <3 (purchased largely for the spy badge, fingerless gloves, and fedora) and some sort of zombie girl in a black dress with white wig. Next year they will have to create something out of the costumes we own. We alternate. I love forcing them to be creative and reuse costumes.

    1. “…how annoying it was that in February of my eldest childs kindergarten year when I had to further explain black history month. Until that moment, people were just people.”

      Those of us who spend the majority of the rest of the year learning Anglo-centric history are sorry your child had to be introduced to the achievements/history of African Americans. Fortunately, you have 11 other months for people to be “just people.”

      I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. But as a person of color (half black, half white; I look “black” so that’s how I generally outwardly identify to others), it is extremely frustrating that in our country the idea of “normal” is white. Think “girl next door.” That expression never means someone who looks like Viola Davis. Think “Miss America.” Generally not a Lucy Liu type (though that’s changing, thankfully).

      This fallacy that somehow spending time talking about the history of people who make up this country, who literally built the foundations of some of our greatest institutions (like the White House, which was built by slaves), takes away from people being “just people” is ridiculous. Please give that some thought.

      1. This is a fair comment MW; the pervasive thinking has definitely changed from “why can’t we all just be people” to “let’s acknowledge and respect our differences” and a lot of people are still trying to make that transition. I greatly appreciate your perspective.

      2. I took her comment about being annoyed about Black History month is that black history is American history and should already be in the curriculum along side the rest of the Anglo-centric doctrine.

        Or maybe by high school, you can have the option to get into more specific histories, like medieval, 18th century America, or 13th century Africa and be able to focus on everyone in those eras and places, not just on one race.

    2. I understand your perspective and I think the whole “I wish we were colorblind” or “we’re all just people” thing that you seem to be saying (correct me if I’m wrong) is where I used to be. Then I really changed my point of view. Read Nurtureshock for an excellent explanation about how and why to talk about race, especially if you’re white.

      I’ve definitely evolved from the whole “everyone is the same on the inside” speech. We aren’t the same at all. We are informed by our differences, experiences, cultural legacies. I suppose it’s seeing the beauty of different (to steal a phrase from Karen Walrond) instead of pretending there is no different. I am hoping maybe your comment about Black History Month just came out wrong; I’d be happy to have curricula around Irish-American achievements, Jewish-American, Mexican-American and so on. To understand everyone’s histories, and how they arrived in the US (by choice–or often, not), is to really appreciate how much harder it has been for those achievements to come at all.

  5. This is tough for me. My middle daughter has always identified with brown skin. She has picked every ethnicity of doll with darker skin than the blonde dolls—we have Black, we have Asian, we have Hispanic. She only likes the Tiana, Pocahontas, and Mulan dolls. The books she picks are always about African American heritage. So one Halloween she asked to be a Native American girl. She was incredibly upset by what was offered for girls-insisting that she didn’t want a shorty-short dress, that she wanted to wear real clothes. She genuinely wanted to dress up as a person from a heritage that she revered. I let her do it, but I was worried about offending people. I think I would still choose to do it the way that we did it, because I think that this pull for her comes from somewhere deep inside of her and will play into whatever she ends up doing in life. Scared to post this, but wanted to offer another perspective.

    1. I don’t think you should be scared to post! Clearly you want to do the right thing, which is half the battle! 🙂

      The advice referenced (“if you’re dressing as a specific person–Obama, Bruce Lee, Lil Kim, the Dali Lama–it’s preferable to dressing as a stereotype from a specific race.”) is a good rule of thumb. If your daughter wants to be Sacagawea or Karana (the character from “Island of the Blue Dolphins”), I say go for it!

    2. Thank you for posting this perspective. I don’t think you’re alone at all, Amanda.

      I have asked myself these questions too; there are so many costumes reflecting traditional cultural dress – Dutch girls in aprons and wooden shoes, Indian Saris, Japanese kimonos, Spanish flamenco dresses, Native American outfits. I’m trying to be able to articulate when it’s okay and when it’s not but it’s hard. I’m still not sure I’m there but I think listening to others is a good start. And doing it from a place of honor and not mockery sounds perfect.

      Your daughter sounds lovely. Especially not wanting to be the “sexy squaw.” Ugh.

  6. There are so many options for costumes that won’t offend anyone. I do not understand prioritizing my own fun to the extent that it would be OK to shrug off the fact that my costume is offensive to a group of people who already have to deal with so much racism. I can’t wave a magic wand and solve the problems of structural racism, but I can decide not to let my Halloween costume be offensive.

    But to be fair, we haven’t had to explain that to a child yet, or disappoint a kid who has her heart set on a costume that I deem inappropriate.

    But just tonight, I had a conversation about the fact that the book my daughter is reading used a word that is now recognized as a slur against Native American woman as the name of an island. The script of that conversation was almost certainly as awkward as the one of you explaining to Sage why her costume idea was not a good one. I keep thinking these conversations will get easier, but they don’t.

  7. We’ve got a Stick Figure (complete with LED’s!) and Zombie Red Riding Hood going on over here. (Off-topic: I had to throw down the creativity gauntlet for Girl Child this year: no slutty costumes from the costume store. Think of something and build it. We’re buying the cape and shredding it.)

    I see people get very defensive about what they’re doing in terms of this conversation, and I really believe that it’s coming from a place of fear. Not knowing what to do, and instead of trying to find out, rejecting the idea and minimizing it as “being ridiculous.”

    One of my college friends is Native American. When she and I got to college, the whole Freshman Initiation BS had a pounding drum, stereotypical chanting and some yahoo was wearing a headdress. She called them out on it. I learned from her that taking a few trappings of a culture out of context and making a mockery of it is offensive. She knew her culture and heritage and was able to explain why this was a problem. I’m thankful for her knowledge because she taught me to see it from her perspective. This was in 1988.

    Change is hard. And achingly slow.

    1. Thank you Karen. You always add so much to every conversation.

      The hardest thing has been for me to learn to ask more questions instead of just jumping to conclusions or being defensive about things. GOD it’s hard. I’m working on it. How did your college peers take it? That’s pretty intense, especially back then.

      1. You know, she had a way that was on-point but not in-your-face. She simply said, “So, you know, I’m Native American, right? Do you know what any of this stuff actually means to us? This isn’t cool with me.”

        Peers were divided: some were appropriately apologetic, and some thought she was being “sensitive.” She seemed to take it in stride.

        She told me that one time she and her boyfriend were driving someplace and her boyfriend at the time said something about an Asian driver they past – something like, “Go home!” yada yada. She said, “If everyone who came to this country just ‘went home’ like you just said, I’d be the only one still here.”

  8. Genius. And so in line with where I’m at. I’m all about homemade costumes, the cleverer the better. My kid has been a pencil, a pre-war building, and a strawberry, among other things. Not controversial or anything to set off the PC Alarms. But I do chafe at the regulation of ‘treating times’ and ‘proper treats’ (not, horrors! homemade). Rules, schmules.

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