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Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?: Keeping it Spooky, Not Disrespectful

By Molly Velazquez-Brown

Jack-o-lanternFall has always been my favorite season. I love the feeling of a cozy sweater and a cup of warmed mulled cider mixed with ghost stories and the crunch of changing leaves. I am comfortable living my truth of autumn everything. But here’s what I don’t love about the season. The offensive Halloween costumes that come disguised as “spooky” fun. I’m not talking gory bloody “it’s-hard-for-me-to-look-at-how-grotesque-your-costume-is” offensive. I mean the mocking of a culture. The belittling of a race—or more often, several. The reduction of peoples to single stereotypes.

Growing up Mexican-American, this is a problem I have encountered my entire life. Not a year has gone by when I haven’t been faced with a peer, stranger, or adult dressed in the ever present (ever offensive) fake mustache, oversized sombrero, and rainbow poncho ensemble. Sometimes there are even maracas or a fake gun involved. Occasionally, they even go as far as to dress up their children to be tiny little jumping beans of inherited racism. Seeing white people dressed in these costumes has always given me a knot in my stomach, even long before I had phrases like “white supremacy” and “cultural appropriation” to understand and articulate those feelings of shame and embarrassment. It took me well into high school to be able to put into words why seeing this upset me so deeply because I was always told it was just in good fun. But now I have the words—even a snappy slogan thanks to the Poster Campaign that was started in 2011 by students at Ohio State—to succinctly say what it is I feel about white people trying on my skin for a night: my culture is not a costume.

I take so much pride in being Mexican and speaking my native language. I treasure the food, clothing, and traditions that come with my heritage, and I love sharing it with those who are interested. But I draw a clear line in the sand when someone uses my culture for their own cheap entertainment. Putting on a stereotype of another culture for one night isn’t funny or cute; it’s hurtful. Those wearing the costumes to “act the part” are misrepresenting these cultures. It’s a fabrication born from American prejudice. There is a stark difference between wanting to dress as a mariachi or Mexican revolutionary—which entails researching the culture to avoid the disrespectful hazard of cultural appropriation—and slapping on some stereotypical Mexican garb from the mall that was probably made by someone in a sweatshop in the global south, faking an accent (and very poorly rolling your r’s), and calling everyone you encounter “hombre” for the night.

Though I can only speak on how offended I feel seeing my culture mocked on Halloween, I am not the only person of color who takes issue with these costumes and feels their shadow cast over every other day of the year. Mexicans are not alone in being mass produced as cheap costumes; Native Americans, Black people, and various Asian and Middle Eastern cultures are some of the staple offensive costumes you can count on seeing as you try to enjoy the night of October 31.

For those who don’t fall into any of the categories of cultures that are appropriated for costumes and have never experienced this, humor me and take a moment to imagine this: you are walking down the street on a crisp Halloween night on your way to a party/bar/to go trick-or-treating and find yourself met with a group of teenagers wearing shirts that read, ‘You are a stupid joke and we do not respect you.’ You try to shrug it off—they can’t mean you, can they?—but you can’t. The sentiment echoes in the back of your head as you go on your way: “These costumes are about you! Remember that we are better than you because of how you look, dress, and speak. We wanted to remind you that who you are is a joke that means nothing to us. The things that connect you to your identity are just props we use to mock you and throw away after we are done with our fun. Have a good night. Happy Halloween!” That, in effect, is what these costumes say.

Costumes are meant to be temporary. You wear it for a few hours and then banish it to the back of your closet for the rest of the year, and don’t think about either the costume itself or the people it represents. I do not. My family does not. My people do not. We wear out heritage on our sleeves every day. We are Latin@s every day. We get told to get out of this country, to speak better English, that we are stupid, worthless, and illegal every day. I wonder if the people putting on these costumes take a moment and realize that when a stranger unwarrantedly yells at me for speaking Spanish on the phone with my mamá in public, it is they who helped perpetuate this hate. They helped make it okay for that stranger to attack who I am by normalizing the dehumanization of my culture.

The older I have gotten the more I try to confront some of the people I encounter in these offensive costumes to explain why it is so wrong and hurtful to wear them. The most frequent (and completely inadequate) comeback is some sort of defensive comment about why they are not a racist and that it is “just a costume.” But it’s not just a costume to those who are being made the butt of the joke. To pretend to be a racial or ethnic minority when you're not makes light of their vast, at times tragic, and beautiful histories. White people’s whole deal is using (then carelessly discarding) pieces of cultures and the people they've conquered, enslaved, and oppressed for centuries, just because they can. You don’t get to tote your I’m not a racist card, then turn around and do something that not only reinforces the unbalanced racial power dynamic in the United States but is just blatantly offensive simply because you think it will be fun for one night.

This year, and every year to come, please take a moment and think about your costume choice. Ask yourself if what you’re putting on will offend a people, a culture, or a race. If you’re truly unsure, ask someone of that culture. Trust me: though you may feel uncomfortable asking, your checking in will warrant a much better response than those you will get just going for it and being offensive. And if you’re out and about this Halloween and see a friend/acquaintance/family member in a costume that makes you feel uneasy, that something about it just doesn’t seem okay, say something to them. It doesn’t have to be in that moment when drinks are being thrown back and you’re surrounded by tons of people, but don’t just let it go. You don’t have to be of the culture being mocked to let people know that it is not acceptable to do.


About the Author 

Molly Velazquez-Brown joined Beacon in 2017 as an assistant to Editorial Director, Gayatri Patnaik and Executive Editor, Amy Caldwell. Originally from Cambridge, MA, she earned her Bachelors of Arts degree in Writing, Rhetoric, and Communications as well as Psychology from Syracuse University.