Question: What do “PocaHottie,” “Hey Amigo” and “Dragon Geisha” all have in common? If you answered either A) they’re all racist costumes that are currently sold in costume shops or B) they can all be spotted in some incarnation at the 5Cs during Halloween, you’d be right. As students put together their costumes, I hold my breath and cringe, because every year, without exception, some students decide to wear racist costumes.
Students at Ohio University in a group called Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) addressed this issue in a thoughtful, creative poster campaign (now in its second year) with the title, “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.” Some of us decided to bring this poster campaign to Claremont, and we hope to create dialogue around such costumes as well as inform students about the damaging effects of racist costumes before this Halloween season.
There are many good reasons not to wear a costume that relies on racist stereotypes or caricatures. Costumes like these communicate negative ideas and assumptions about people of that race or ethnicity, and as this year’s posters say, that stigma stays with people of color long after you take the costume off. Wearing racist costumes also creates a hostile environment for people of that race, who may not appreciate seeing their identity, culture or community mocked and distorted while they’re trying to relax and have a good time. Costumes like these demonstrate disrespect and ignorance on behalf of the costume-wearer. Finally, they aren’t funny or creative. Really. This is one widely celebrated holiday where creativity is actively encouraged, and all a racist costume does is prove that the wearer knows how to recycle old, tired bigotry. They’re similar to racist “jokes:” unoriginal and offensive.
You might be wondering how a costume can be racist. I bring this up because sometimes, when racist incidents happen on campus, students react by saying that it wasn’t “explicitly” racist—they say it wasn’t at the level of the KKK or neo-Nazis, maybe, or they give some other reason why it doesn’t hold up to their personal standard of racism. However, racism functions on many levels, from the macro to the micro and back to the macro. It depends on people, particularly white people, being both active and passive participants in the subjugation, control and demeaning of people of color. It requires that people both recognize and reiterate racist ideas. Even though a costume may seem like a small thing, it still feeds back into this system. This is without even considering the immediate negative impact that such a costume has on the people around you. This is not about censoring costumes or being politically correct; it’s about respect and accountability.
There are also good reasons to avoid costumes that aren’t explicitly racist but still draw upon damaging racializations, such as certain fictional characters. If the costume might be reasonably interpreted as racist, or if there’s some history of people adopting the same costume in racist ways, you’re better off staying away from it. There’s a long, ongoing history of white appropriation of non-white culture, and these kinds of costumes run the active risk of participating in it. A common example is when non-Native American people dress up like the Disney character Pocahontas, while so many generic “sexy native/Indian” costumes proliferate on Halloween. My own relationship to this particular point has been a learning experience, having been someone who once donned such a costume without thinking twice about the implications of it.
When I was a junior in high school, I dressed up as Pocahontas for Halloween. It wasn’t for another couple of years that I learned about why this wasn’t okay, particularly with me being a non-Native person and very particularly with me being a mostly white, white-privilege-having person. When I did learn, I resisted a little. I went through my rationale at the time, thinking about what my intentions were with the costume. Pocahontas was my favorite movie growing up, Pocahontas herself was one of my favorite characters, the costume was accurate to the movie and I didn’t mean for it to be offensive, racist or stereotypical. What I didn’t realize then was that my intentions didn’t matter. Of all the arguments against racist costumes that I discussed above, none of them are negated or redeemed by the fact that I didn’t mean for it to be like that.
The common sexualization as part of the costume makes Pocahontas/”PocaHottie” an important example as well. Women of color are often regarded in oversexualized and exoticized ways by the media and dominant culture, which dehumanizes and degrades them and enables racialized violence. Wearing a “sexy (woman of color)” costume has particular resonance with this kind of gendered racism. There’s nothing wrong with women (or people of any other genders) wearing sexy costumes for Halloween, but it’s important to do this in respectful, conscientious, non-oppressive ways.
A costume can be offensive for a variety of reasons, including along lines of gender, sexuality and class. One of STARS’s posters this year, titled “Appalachian,” features a white man sitting and facing forward, with a figure behind him who’s wearing a costume that mocks low-income and rural white people. I chose to focus this article on racist costumes, particularly because of their prevalence on campus and also to reflect STARS’s campaign, but that is not meant to detract from the issue of other non-racist offensive costumes.
When describing the aftermath of my Pocahontas costume, I mentioned learning about why these kinds of costumes are offensive and disrespectful. These learning moments happened among friends and peers, but I am particularly grateful to Adrienne K. and her blog, Native Appropriations, for her analyses of race, culture, whiteness and appropriation. She writes about racist costumes, among many other things, and her articles are a great resource for those who wish to learn more about why racist costumes are not okay.
One reason why I wanted to write this article was to share my thoughts on racialized Halloween costumes; the other reason was so that you would all have space to share yours. I welcome your thoughts and opinions in the online comments section.