Community & Culture

Is Your Halloween Costume Offensive?

Before trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns and Disney’s Halloweentown trilogy*, our favourite fall holiday was known by only its earliest defining element: the costumes.

Although the origins of Halloween date back over 2,000 years, the October 31 we know today is a fairly recent one. Before the twentieth century, the celebration’s dress code was restricted to the attire of supernatural or folkloric beings – worn strategically to ward off evil spirits. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Halloween costumes began being sold in stores and ensembles based on characters in mass media such as film, literature, and radio became available.

Since then, the off-the-rack options have expanded drastically, but at whose expense? Today, the most horrifying Halloween costumes range from culturally insensitive to downright racist.

Is your costume offensive? Answer yes to any of the following questions and it likely is. If your costume raises any of these red flags, you should probably (DEFINITELY) reconsider wearing it.

1. Are you using makeup to alter your natural skin tone?

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In 2013, Julianne Hough donned blackface while dressed as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba) from Orange Is the New Black.

If your Halloween look includes face paint this year, contemplate the role it plays in your costume. Are you coloring yourself blue to complete your avatar guise? Cool. Going green for a classic Wicked Witch of The West vibe? Oz the power to ya! Using a shade of foundation darker than your complexion to imitate Orange Is The New Black’s Suzanne “Crazy Eyes”? No. Absolutely not. Applying cosmetics to mimic the skin colour of a celebrity or character is never okay. Such uses of makeup (blackface, brownface, redface, yellow face, etc.) cannot be removed from their historical contexts.

2. Does the name of your costume include an ethnicity in its title?

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“Native American Princess” and “Brave Indian” Halloween Costumes

As preposterous as it sounds, at this time of year, establishments all over North America openly sell racist merchandise. Even right next to campus, Spirit Halloween (the seasonal pop-up retail currently occupying the former Future Shop at 10 Dundas) carries culturally based costumes in abundance.

To list a few…

Native American Princess
Reservation Royalty
Geisha Gorgeous
Gypsy Moon
Eskimo Babe
Sultan King
Mexican Man

(Other problematic key words include: tribal, sombrero, senior, seniorita, Indian, warrior, tiki, ghetto, etc.)

Why are the aforementioned outfits insensitive? Put simply, they perpetuate harmful stereotypes and stigmas, which ultimately lead to more aggressive racist attitudes. They are caricatures of a people group, not costumes.

Consider why almost every model of a “Native American” costume is pictured holding an axe, bow & arrow, spear or a sharp stick. From Warrior Chief to Poca Hottness, these costumes imply that indigenous people are both archaic savages and figments of the past. Yet, we know that there are over 1.4 million Aboriginal people in Canada today. On a traditional native war bonnet and powwow dress, the placement of every feather and bead has sacred meaning – the inaccuracies in a $49.98 costume called Poca Hottness is anything but a sign of respect. Likewise, hyper-sexualized renditions of these custom garbs (Huron Honey, Sexy Dream Catcher and Pow Wow Wow) take on new meaning when presented with the staggering fact that there are more than 1,000 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, most under the age of 30 and victims of sexual violence.

3. Are you wearing garments or accessories traditional to a culture?

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“Sexy Arab” Halloween Costume

Putting on a sacred piece of apparel (that you don’t usually wear) – like a sari, hijab, bindi or keffiyeh – is unacceptable because those adornments you are “borrowing” mean something entirely different to the culture you’re taking them from. There is a thin line between cultural appropriation and appreciation.

Cultural appropriation is the theft of icons, rituals and aesthetic standards from one culture by another – A.K.A. wearing culture as a costume or using it to make a fashion statement. In 2014, a Canadian music festival banned attendees from wearing feather headdresses out of respect for “the dignity of aboriginal people,” in fear of this very practice. Cultural appreciation is the act of honouring a culture by respecting their customs and traditions when within their community. This may include donning an ethnic garb to a marriage, holiday or other event you were invited to attend or displaying Aboriginal art purchased from an indigenous artist.

4. Are you dressed as an offensive historical figure?

Though this point should go without saying, I will say it anyway. Dressing up as someone notorious for his or her role in a historical event or time period that featured the death, torture, isolation or mistreatment of a people is totally uncool. Hitler, Osama Bin Laden and a member of the KKK are not good Halloween costumes and if you think they are, you might be an asshole.

5. Is your costume “funny” because it mocks the real life experiences of others?

"lllegal Alien" Halloween Costume
“lllegal Alien” Halloween Costume

On November 1, you will put your costume away, go back to being you, and naturally, we’ll all start thinking about the holidays – but will the implications of your getup continue to resonate? You can take the costume off, but the group you pretended to represent will continue to face the trends your costume worked to assert and reinforce.

By wearing an “Illegal Alien” costume, you are belittling the struggles of refugees and anyone escaping war, persecution or famine to pursue a better, safer life abroad – experiences like that of the nearly 12 million Syrians (half of which are children) who were forced to flee their homes earlier this year. In the same way, an “Arab terrorist” costume adds to a pre-existing culture of Islamophobia, where the racial profiling of a 14-year-old Muslim boy led to the high school freshman being arrested for building a clock.

On Halloween, you can choose to be anyone you want and hopefully, whoever that may be, is decent enough to make a thoughtful choice. What you become on that night is a direct reflection of who you are every other day of the year.

If this reading has squashed your costume plans – you’re welcome. You’re better off just being a Minion or something.

What are you being for Halloween this year? Share your costumes with us on Twitter + Instagram @RUStudentLife and enter the annual #RUScared Halloween costume contest. We’re giving out lots of treats! 

*I am fully aware that there are technically four films in the Halloweentown series, but the last one doesn’t count and we all know why.

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Julianna Garofalo
Julianna is in her third-year of study at Ryerson's School of Journalism. As well, she is a Digital Marketing Assistant for RU Student Life, the university's leading student-run social network. At 20-years-old, she is undecided and open-minded about which career path she’d like to pursue. As a firm believer that the soul of a good writer is a good reader, Julianna strives to tell stories that inspire others to take ownership of the skill and seek to improve upon it with their own ideas. She also loves cats, Taylor Swift and those cookies with the red jelly stuff in the centre.