Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Implicit racism: Think before you costume

While most Wash. U. students pride themselves on their intelligence and human decency, Halloween can be an exception to that rule. It’s a time to let loose, masquerade as someone or something you could never be in real life and hopefully impress everyone with your command of visual humor—assuming, of course, your parents aren’t coming into town. But there’s a line. Blackface. Sexy Indian garb. Hispanic “illegal alien” ensembles. Geisha caricatures. Drawing on ethnic and racial stereotypes as Halloween costumes broadcasts at best a sense of ignorance and at worst a form of hate speech. Few if any college students actually try to make a statement with their Halloween costumes. Yet most of us who have been on campus for a few years have seen numerous costumes cross the line between politically incorrect and offensive.

As much as American society has improved over the past century, we do not live in a post-racial, or even post-racism, society. And as diverse or racially accepting as Wash. U. may be, not all of us grew up in environments as progressive as the University’s. And this becomes apparent when costumes draw on stereotypes and images of a larger cultural discourse of oppression. Blackface was and still is a way to dehumanize and demean. And it’s hardly the only poor choice available from your standard costume shop.

Racist and otherwise offensive Halloween costumes are usually worn as a naive attempt to be funny. And you or someone you know may have considered buying one. What is just a joke to you, however, can still be deeply hurtful. In an article addressing the problem of racist Halloween costumes in The Root, academics explain why such costumes are a problem. As Leslie Picca, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton, said: “The thing is, a joke doesn’t work without a foundation of cultural resonance, or at least a nugget of perceived truth.” Whatever traces of satire ironically racist costumes might carry are lost amid poor execution and even poorer judgment about what constitutes satire. When choosing a costume, it’s important to look not just at intent but also at results; if there’s a probability that someone will find your costume questionable, then reconsider. You wouldn’t tell a joke with a racist punch line or reference the Holocaust to a bunch of strangers, so why wear a costume that is equally offensive to a party?

Stick with animals, political statements, superheroes and memes. Since it’s election season, why not make a statement and go as a politician? We predict Workout Paul Ryan will be a staple at every Halloween bash. Or go with a figure from pop culture and be one of the Olympic Fab Five or Big Bird. There are a myriad of possibilities. Racist costumes are the minority, but it’s important to be aware of the impact they have in terms of perpetuating harmful stereotypes. If you’re still convinced that your poncho/sombrero ensemble is hilarious, maybe you should consider staying at home and reading a few books in it instead.

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  • john says:

    Oh god…another women and gender studies major looking to actually get some kind of value out of their degree…

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  • dtconcerned says:

    I think that just as much a part of this issue is oversensitivity. If I put on a Pirate costume and someone gets offended because the hat mocks the attire of the spanish armada and the boots are brittish and the ruffles are french, GET OVER IT!! It is not supposed to be a realistic portrayal of anything specific. We live in a melting pot so if I mixed up cultures who cares, they all came out of the pot, unless you are so bias you require we un-melt the social blendings that made our country great? Yes, sometimes some things are racist and need to be backed off, but not everything that is interpretted that way is racist, or sexist or whateverist. Sometimes it is the one looking at it and getting offended that is the real problem. If we look hard enough we can get offended at everything anyone does and place a label on it that points and says this person is doing wrong because my mind is corrupt and sees it that way. Maybe we should care more about heart and intent before we look for ways to be offended? Maybe she was just trying to dress up sexy and Geisha was just how you interpretted her outfit? I am just suggesting that perhaps you should take a pause and see if it isn’t you putting yoru predjudice into the way you are seeing a constume?

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    • john says:

      Completely agree!

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    • Magali says:

      Even though the intention isn’t to offend others but to have fun on Halloween the impact is still there.
      It’s not being oversensitive as some naive people call it, but it’s being aware of the impact that your actions have on others and taking responsibility of that.

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  • aln says:

    So… My Klan robes are a no-go?

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  • JKL says:

    I don’t think WashU is the kind of school that needs to be reminded of this or encouraged to choose responsibly.

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    • anonymous says:

      The student body is largely white and very privileged. This is exactly the kind of school that needs to be reminded of this.

      I don’t mean to offend anyone by saying this, but it’s pretty clear most of us didn’t grow up with the problems that affect marginalized minority groups, and sometimes we can forget about those problems or not be as sensitive to racial issues as we should be.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878