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What not to Wear: 5 Most Racist Halloween Costumes This Year

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Mikhail Lyubansky       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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Even if it is only for a day, there is no denying that it's fun to be someone else. For some, part of the fun is to be as different as possible. Perhaps that's why some men put on drag, why some demure women get their sexy on, and... why some white folks are drawn to blackface. I'm far from qualified to offer real fashion advice, but after 25 years on a college campus, I have seen my share of what not to wear. Let's start with the obvious and go from there.

1. Blackface. Blackface is not ok. Ever. This is apparently complicated, so Twitter user @BobbyBigWheel made a nifty flowchart. Should I wear blackface on Halloween?
Copyrighted Image? DMCA
And no, there are no exceptions. It doesn't matter if you're trying to impersonate a Black person or if you're going with Black friends (who say it's ok). It doesn't even matter if you're not White or if you're dressing up to honor someone or if it's part of a theatrical performance. If this doesn't fully resonate...if you think that it's a compliment or, at the very least, harmless fun, well, then you probably don't know much about the history of blackface and aren't about to follow the link to learn.

2. Recently murdered Black men. This obviously pertains to Black women and any other person who met a violent death, but let's face it: It's usually a Black man and usually combined with blackface, as in the images below.

Mashup of Trayvon Martin costumes3. Anything with a noose. Much like blackface, nooses have a history. Using a noose as part of a costume or as part of a Halloween decoration dishonors, trivializes, and mocks that history. And no, you can't "hang" what look like Black bodies (or conspicuous nooses) and then say some version of "This is not about race. They're just dead bodies because, you know, Halloween." Well you can, but don't expect folks to take you seriously. Because no one who understands and respects the real history would do such a thing and those who would do such a thing are only using Halloween as cover for what they want to do every other day.

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4. A racial, ethnic, or cultural group. This one is so commonplace, especially in the sports world, that some of us may not even realize it's racist. The Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins don't make it any easier, but it's not just the professional sports franchises and their fans who are guilty of this. There are still college and high school teams who use Indians as "mascots" and even when a university formally gets rid of such images, as the University of Illinois did recently with Chief Illiniwek (left), students sometimes still like to bring the Chief back on special occasions, like Halloween. More generally, any attempt to dress up as a generic member of a group (i.e., a stereotype) rather than a specific person is probably not going to end well. On the other hand, dressing up as a specific person can also be a problem (see below):

5. A criminal whose crime reinforces harmful stereotypes. This one is trickier than most on this list. Criminals come in all shapes and colors and dressing up as a specific criminal is not generally off limits, but some criminal acts have more stigma than others, as, for example, sexual assault and violence against women. When we dress up as, say Ray Rice in a domestic violence scene, as below, we are essentially saying "ha ha...isn't domestic violence hilarious?" and subtly implying that this is how Black men tend to act. And when we dress up young kids in this fashion, we (perhaps unintentionally) condone the behavior and even imply that it wouldn't be so bad if little Johnny would do the same thing when he grows up. I know. I know. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And yes, of course I get that it's supposed to be a joke. But who/what is the butt of this kind of humor? The way I see it, humor that pokes fun of domestic violence or its victims is meanspirited, misogynistic, and not at all funny. In other words, costumes like this are scary, and not in a good way.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

(Article changed on November 1, 2014 at 14:54)


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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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