A Guide to Picking Your Halloween Costume


The middle of October means that every store is getting ready for Halloween, filling their aisles with pumpkins and candy. As you join in on the preparations by buying 120 “fun sized” candy bars (for the trick-or-treaters, not for panicked study sessions, right?) and carving pumpkins, you’re probably planning a costume as well. If teen romantic comedies the likes of Mean Girls and A Cinderella Story have taught us anything, it’s that Halloween is an opportunity to dress up as whatever you want and find your destiny.

Maybe your plans for the last Monday of October are not that grand. Still, costumes are a critical part of Halloween. All in good fun, they wrap up nearly a year’s worth of culture, allow creative expression, and even make political statements. The last stems another valuable lesson derived from teen movies: what you wear always means something. In those movies, a pair of glasses or a letterman jacket could shape your identity into a nerd or a jock. In real life, your Halloween costume could shape you into a humorous social commentator, a celebrity look-a-like, an insensitive bigot, or a potential liability that future employees would like to avoid. To make sure your Halloween costume is off-the-hook instead of offensive and trendy instead of terrible, The Dagligtale suggests you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What does this Halloween costume represent to me?
  2. What does this Halloween costume represent to others?
  3. Do I know the history and context of this costume? What are they?
  4. What part of myself do I have to change in order to pull off this costume?
  5. What other options do I have?

Maybe your costume idea is a light-humoured joke for you—you’re just making fun of them. Maybe you’re being someone you admire and want to portray them as accurately as possible.  Or you don’t even associate your costume with a person, it’s just a concept you’re trying to embody.

Regardless of intentions, the reality is that just like every other day of the year, Halloween does not exist in a vacuum. It’s not a free pass to get away with “political incorrectness” in the name of a costume. October 31, 2016 will be a day affected by the histories of slavery, segregation, colonialism, genocide, and every other event that has marked history.

When you’re putting on dark foundation to mimic Barack Obama or Pocahontas, you’re reproducing some very violent imagery from humanity’s past. The practice of darkening one’s skin to mimic another race has been a method of perpetuating racism for centuries. Even if your intentions of doing blackface is completely different from those who supported slavery and segregation in the 1800s, you’re both performing acts that represents violent racism. Overall, changing your features to mimic another ethnicity is considered racist.

When you’re putting on an afro, a sombrero, dark skin, or a feather headdress, you’re overlooking the fact that people have been fired, bullied, assaulted, and murdered for having those same things—things they couldn’t take off or wash away at the end of the night. By dressing up as a “Mexican,” or a “Native,” we often resort to hurtful stereotypes rather than authentic customs. When we are wearing these costumes, are we dressing up as Mexican diplomats? Indigenous athletes? No—the costumes hanging in Spirit Halloween feature mass-produced ponchos and faux suede. These items come in designs that real people don’t wear because real people have diverse, culturally significant clothing. To accept these generic costumes as portrayals that are anything but offensive feed back into the narrative that these cultures are homogenous and therefore disposable.

Ultimately, it boils down to this: your privilege of having a Halloween costume you think is fun does not trump other people’s rights to not be offended and dehumanized. So on Halloween, ask yourself if the costume you’re putting on will be appreciated by everyone, or if it carries connotations you’d rather not be associated with. Ask yourself if delivering a punchline on one night is worth hurting others’ and making light of struggles with justice that continue today. If you’re still skeptical, there are endless resources on the topics of cultural appropriation, racial justice, and sensitivity to these issues. Meanwhile, it might be best to ensure a harmless, fun night by taking a page out of Mean Girls and putting on some animal ears to celebrate this year.

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