Staff ed: Should you wear that problematic costume?

It seems like every year we feel compelled to write this same editorial: Do not wear problematic costumes this Halloween.

No, actually—we write this every single year.

This year, though, was going to be different. This was the year that Washington University students would understand what’s problematic and what’s not because we have a president who puts problematic behavior on full display. To be honest, we thought about leaving this editorial to a single sentence: If the president would do it, you probably shouldn’t.

But we have word counts to hit, so we figured we’d take that sentence a step further and test everyone’s understanding of it. This isn’t meant to be condescending—we all have great faith that each of you will receive a 100 percent on this exam.

If you need a hint, remember the difference between punching up and punching down. Punching up is when a person with an identity that has been historically persecuted makes a joke at the expense of someone with an identity associated with power. Punching down is when a person with an identity of power makes a joke at the expense of someone with a persecuted identity.

To put it more concretely, punching up is the victim taking a shot at the bully, twice their size. Punching down is the bully picking on someone smaller than them. We commend the first because it shows bravery and toughness, despite a bad situation, and condemn the second because it’s unfair and cruel.

So remember: Punching up is OK, punching down is not. It’s also only four true or false questions, you can do it:

Tommy, a white man, wants to impress his friends this Halloween by showing off his penchant for self-deprecation. He knows he’s tall, gangly and slow, so he wants to dress like someone who fits that description. He decides Shaquille O’Neal would be a good option.

Tommy should buy charcoal in order to blacken his face to complement the O’Neal jersey he already owns. ( True / False )

Maria, a Latinx woman, is on a budget and doesn’t have too much time to think about a Halloween costume. She knows that her friend has a pointy black hat from last year, and there’s a broom in the corner of her apartment.

Maria’s makeshift witch costume sounds like a perfectly harmless option! ( True / False)

Derek, a black man, wants to wear a joke costume to show his friends that he’s up to date on current events. Understanding his racial identity, Derek has a general idea what he can and cannot dress as. He, like Maria, also doesn’t want to break the bank, so he goes into his closet, finds a sweater vest and some khakis and borrows his roommate’s ibuprofen to offer to other party goers.

Derek’s improvised Bill Cosby costume definitely shows he’s up to date on current events and will be received well by all party goers. ( True / False )

Jonathan, a white man, has just finished reading Student Life’s passive-aggressive and kind of vague costume guide and feels he is still not equipped to dress himself. He wanted to dress as Colin Kaepernick but now feels like maybe he shouldn’t do that. Ultimately, Jonathan decides to dress as Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo” by wearing a green shirt and red pants, while carrying a box of Scooby Snax he bought at Schnucks.

Jonathan has learned a helpful lesson from the guide and made the right choice in switching from Colin Kaepernick to Shaggy. (True / False )


False—Tommy should not buy the charcoal. An O’Neal jersey alone is not a great costume, but it’s not offensive. Blackface is always offensive.

True—As a mythical being, a witch is fair game as far as Halloween goes. Maybe avoid green face paint, as it could be misconstrued as blackface, but otherwise good to go.

False—While Derek is cognizant of one of his identities, he has failed to realize that dressing as Cosby punches down on an identity he doesn’t hold, as a man. Derek should not be making light of sexual assault and rape.

True—If Jonathan had gone as Colin Kaepernick, he would’ve been toeing a line. Adding an afro or kneeling during parties are both gestures that can negatively impact others because they seem to be making light of protesting police brutality. Best to avoid any semblance of doubt and go as Shaggy, a fictional character within Jonathan’s identity.

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