Culture Not A Costume Photo

Can A Culture Be A Halloween Costume?

This last week, posters from a small student group at Ohio University have become the center of controversy over their Halloween costume campaign: We’re a Culture Not a Costume.

Culture Not A Costume Photo (source)

I wasn’t sure how to take the posters and commentary at first. I find it pathetic that people lack this much creativity so it’s hard for me to even acknowledge these as costumes when I’m used to pulling off these. I see the above “costumes” as ignorant caricatures donned by equally ignorant college students.

However, college is supposed to be a time of growth and change from the insulated high school experience to a larger sense of community, purpose and understanding of the world. In my first month of college, I watched a bad television show and said: That’s so gay. My friend’s gay roommate responded: That’s hurtful because it implies gay is bad or stupid. Me: I never thought of that. Thanks. And I didn’t do it again. I, in turn, stood up to hurtful language later on in college and beyond

The awareness, which the Ohio students bring by pointing out how these costumes imply hurtful ideas and ideologies, is important. Many people don’t understand the history of blackface or geisha because they’ve never needed to understand another culture. Or no one had the courage to call them out on it. This is what college can do — remind us that we are not the center of the universe.

Of course, many commenters have bristled that these students are ruining Halloween’s fun. Some state: What’s next? Cowboys? Well, cowboys aren’t being characterized negatively in the costume. I don’t see people laughing at the idea of being a cowboy unless the person is a cowboy in Brokeback Mountain but then it would the “jokes” about being gay not about being a cowboy.

Other commenters write: Where is the white man looking sad holding a photo of someone dressed up with no teeth and a possum hat? I actually think a kid from Appalachia could’ve been on the poster although I think the issue is making fun of being poor not being white.

But I see the bigger question: Does this mean, if we dressed up like another culture or job with cultural aspects (as some see cowboys) in a positive light, it would be okay? If we dressed like wealthy, white men in America, it would be okay?

I don’t know always where the line is between a joke and offensiveness. Over the last year, I’ve thought of the post on Late Enough with a title that made fun of having teeth at the county fair. I wasn’t comfortable with the title although I did write it and keep it. I felt like it was an easy joke rather than a good joke. But after writing on culture and costumes, I reworded that title because that piece was about attending our first state fair not about being too poor to afford dental care. No one called me out on it, but it just wasn’t funny. And more so, it wasn’t nice.

We all forget how our words, actions and yes, even costumes, can affect one another in profound ways.

“The more we look at people as caricatures, the harder it is to operate as democracy,” [Jelani Cobb] said. “What underlies this kind of costuming is the belief that these people aren’t quite equal to what we are or aren’t as American as we are or that you as a person who’s not member of that group should be able to dictate how painful stereotype should be.”(source)

Where is the line? Perhaps it is not narrow or obvious every time. But I can offer this for Halloween and beyond: With so many creative costumes ideas out there, why chose one that may hurt someone else? Choose the good joke, the creative, the self-deprecating first because people, even those we do not know, are more important than an easy laugh.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

19 thoughts to “Can A Culture Be A Halloween Costume?”

  1. Ah, a very tough topic.
    I like how you bring up the innocuous costumes a bit as well. Is dressing up as an Indian Princess a stereotype? Yes, but is it negative? I know it’s nonfactual, but I don’t how hurtful it is to most people. I know that it’s hurtful to me.
    And where do we draw the line? With nearly 300 million people in our nation, the likelihood that at least one person will be miffed or take offensive to something is rather high. Many of those costumes in the are obviously inappropriate, but what about the ones in the gray zone?
    To top it all off, let’s talk about children’s costumes. If you are a boy, it’s about violence, aggression, gore. If you are a girl, it seems to go either princess or slutty.

    1. You know, I came to conclusion that the intention and context behind cultural costumes matter more than the facade itself. For example, wearing a suicide bomber costume may be a bit rushy, but dressing up as Saracen warrior may not carry the same connotation. With this sort of logic in mind, there’s a line between dressing as a WWII German soldier vs a Gestapo or SS dickhead. Also, it is one thing to dress as an Indian “Squaw-Princess” or hula-girl over dressing up in emulation of a Iroquois or a Maoli warrior. Not only does it have to do with the intent behind the costume, but also how informed the audience is.

  2. Hey? I’m the first comment! Here gores nothing….
    Halloween was the last place where you could be anyone or anything and not be judged. A Princess or a Bum. A Hooker or a Fire Truck. Anything goes. Now comes the ever-so-not-so-diverse liberals telling us how to think. Didn’t Orwell warn us about this?
    Yes I feel not included as my Hillbilly culture was not represented.

  3. Okay, maybe I’m weirdly insulated, but some people think those costumes are okay? ‘Cause I would have thought they’d be obviously racist. Except possibly the top left one, which though I’ve blown up like crazy I can’t figure out what it’s a costume of, other than possibly a vampire attacking a woman. And I don’t think that’s offensive unless vampires exist. Though I do avoid watching the news, so possibly have missed some sort of announcement.

    Seriously, though, I would say something if I saw somebody wearing a costume like those. Looking back, I guess I didn’t realize my school was all progressive and accepting – the only costumes I ever saw was people dressed up like a penis.

    (Really, you’d think there’d be other costumes, but the only ones I encountered were penii.)

    (Penii is probably not the right word but I’m at work and too scared to Google it.)

  4. While I understand the sentiment expressed in this post, and I agree with your commentary for the most part, I have a hard time deciding how I feel about this issue. I certainly stand against racial intolerance and hatred just for hatred’s sake, but I can never fully support condemnation for cultural stereotypes and caricatures because they are grounded in reality, albeit often reality of decades or centuries past.

    Yes, I believe it’s terrible when someone dresses like a caricature to mock and/or demonize a particular group of people, but what if someone dresses in a culturally historical or traditional way for non-malicious reasons? History projects, cultural shows, even members of a particular group dressing as a stereotype for their own enjoyment (e.g. “ghetto” culture, harajuku, even country or redneck culture for white people)….where is the line? SHOULD there be a line? Should we just condemn those who are clearly being disrespectful, or condemn everyone for potentially encouraging intolerance and misunderstanding?

  5. I get both sides of this. It is hard to know where to stop…like dressing up like an American Indian. I don’t think that’s offensive but I would think it in totally bad taste if someone dressed up in “black face” and would hope they would get punched. I just don’t know! When a few couples and us got together for a beach week each night was a different theme with food to go with it and everyone was encouraged to dress the part. Hawaiian night with tiki torches, hula skirts and pine apple, Mexican food night with sombreros and ponchos, and yes, white trash night with corn dogs, hot dogs, anything grilled and fried and overalls. (I happened to have won that night due to my mu-mu, that is actually a legit thing I wear from time to time given to me by Robby’s Grama who called it a Saturday morning dress.) Anyhoo, I like to think of myself as being very sensitive to differences. I guess you have to think WHY are you dressing up this way. Is it to poke fun? Then not a good choice. Is it because you LOVE the culture? Then ok? And if so then looking back we clearly should not have done the white trash night and I feel horrible. But I’d probably do it again to be truthful! How horrible am I?!

    1. I agree, I can never know what will offend or not, especially because I would not be offended if someone from another country dressed up as a pioneer girl from America, but other people would be offended if someone dressed up with elements from their culture, so I find it very hard to figure out what I can and can’t wear.

  6. A friend mentioned this campaign to me in wondering if dressing up as Frida Kahlo would be perceived as “cultural.” We kind of decided “no” since she is famous individual rather than a culture.

    And like Megan above (below?), it’s hard for me to imagine that most anyone resembling a thinking individual would think that the costumes illustrated would be…okay.

  7. I don’t know how I feel about this. I’m French. And the French maid costume should insult me? Or how about when somebody is rude and says “pardon my French”? Should I slap them across the face while throwing out a French cuss word showing them what they really are?

    It’s the INTENT to hurt or be mean that is offensive. I’ve heard so many gay people say “don’t be so gay”, and even a friend of mine who has adopted a mentally disabled girl uses the term “retard” on a regular basis…

    Yet, I know soooo many politically correct people who are racists, age’ists, sexists, and guilty of every other form of ism’s in the book…

  8. I totally get why a blackface costume is ridiculous. I have to say I don’t find a geisha girl costume offensive, although I understand that others have a right to feel that way. I think we are straddling a line between what’s ok and what’s offensive, only that line is drawn by each individual person in most cases.

    If someone showed up at my costume party dressed in KKK gear, I would be offended. If someone showed up dressed as an American Indian, I would not. Someone else might find a Frida Kahlo costume offensive, where I would not. Someone else might love a “wetback” costume (“hey, I’m a Mexican crossing the border illegally!”) hilarious, whereas I would not.

    As others have said, it’s tough topic. I do believe we have to be aware of certain stereotypes and offensive costumes. I also believe we have to be aware of hyper politically correctness. Someone could say dressing as a police officer is fine, while someone else could say it is offensive to people who were beaten by a cop, even most recently as at the Occupy Wall St. protests.

  9. Whenever I think of stereotypes, I come back around to this column.

    There’s more to it but it leads off with this:

    “If there’s one thing I like it’s a nice broad, sweeping generalisation or a solid, dependable hackneyed old stereotype.

    I especially like national stereotypes. They’re harmless, fun, and probably a lot more accurate than we care to believe. I don’t care if Italians think I buy condoms in packs of 12, so that I’ll have one for every month of the year, because in return it leaves me free to assume that all Italian men are mummy’s boys and that a hand grenade goes off in the belly of an Italian woman the instant she gets married. The Australians think we’re all whiners. Great. It means I can continue to regard them as backward because they think the height of sophistication is to cook your dinner over a bonfire. Here you do that if you’re a tramp.

    And then there are the French, one of my favourite targets for a big broadside of ill-informed prejudice. Blah blah the war blah blah garlic blah blah berets moan moan communist tendencies drone drone referendum grumble grumble cheese smells funny.”

  10. “because people, even those we do not know, are more important than an easy laugh.” Beautifully said. I am blessed to live in a place where we, as white people, are the minority (Hawai’i). Our children are growing up in a place and have friends from all sorts of ethnicities. Our kids don’t see color and for that, I am so grateful. My kids will be Harry Potter and a black cat this year. However, last year my daughter was a hula dancer. I didn’t consider her costume offensive because she IS a hula dancer. She wore her own hula attire and danced a real hula when asked. I think she rocked it. 🙂

  11. I think that people don’t get that it’s hurtful because they really, truly, do not understand what is beyond their scope. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they just haven’t been pushed beyond their comfort zone. In any case, it’s important to remember this: It’s not your job to educate everyone. I can only explain something to someone who wants to understand, not someone who wants to be angry.

  12. This is interesting to me. My husband (who is african-american) doesn’t dress up for Halloween. The nurses he works with brought him a “pimp” costume so he could wear it for pictures. I was like “Didn’t that offend you?” and his response was “why would it?” He thought it was funny, and the pictures turned out great.

    As an inter-racial couple who has lived everywhere from Virginia to Texas, we have had lots of opportunities to be offended. But most of the time we ignore the opportunity and assume the best in people. Most people don’t mean to offend anyone. Most of the time their intentions are good.

    And if they aren’t good? If they are being rude and offensive? How does getting upset about it or being offended change the situation? They are still being stupid, and I’m the one who is hurt by my own offense.

    As a country the best way to move forward is to STOP being offended, not to continue to look for reasons to be offended. I’m sure that I say and do plenty of stupid things without meaning to. Cut your neighbor some slack and assume the best.

    1. I sometimes think that maybe people get overly offended “on behalf of others” without stopping to find out if those others actually are bothered by whatever it is. It can be hard, however, to find out in the first place without getting labeled as “insensitive” yourself.

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