Amidst the pumpkin, superhero, and princess costumes, Halloween can become an aid for ignorance to emerge its ugly head through racially-offensive costumes.
Some people choose to reinforce cultural stereotypes by portraying a sombrero wearing, fast-speaking illegal alien, a sexualized Geisha, or purchasing dread wigs and other ethnic type extensions to mock black culture.
Last year, students at Ohio University were fed up with these types of mischaracterizations and created an organization to fight against it called “Student Teaching Against Racism” also known as STARS. The group’s campaign “We’re a Culture, not a Costume,” raises awareness through campus posters to emphasize how offensive and harmful stereotyped depictions can be.
STARS’ President Sarah Williams said the campaign was warmly received by about 80 percent of the student body. However, she said ten percent of students reacted negatively which she believes is “rooted in ignorance and white privilege.”
The unfortunate reality is that there are too many people who believe STARS’ efforts can dampen their fun rather than considering their detrimental influence on others.
Many people who participate in racially-offensive costuming often find ways to rationalize it. For example, a white person who may dress up as a blackface Barack Obama or in a Lil Wayne costume might think it is acceptable if they have black friends who find it entertaining by taking photos with them.
David J. Leonard, an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University believes these types of passive sentiments effect how cultures view and interact with each other beyond the Halloween season.
"It just reflects how we talk about race in contemporary society," he says. "It reflects the overall belief that race doesn't matter, or that it only matters when people of color — who are accused of being overly sensitive, or 'playing the race card' — bring it up," Leonard said.
Often the common reaction to this type of reprimand is “But I’m not racist.” However, Leonard feels that this response focuses more on “Who you are” rather than “What you did.” It becomes identity based rather than action-based when participants don’t realize the influential power behind their actions.
"There's this sense of 'I don't know why people have to make it a big deal,' " said Leslie Picca, associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Picca’s book Two Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage evaluates the misrepresentation of white racial attitudes. The book also notes how difficult it is for young adults to see the implications of stereotypical costuming because they believe they are living in a colorblind world.
College students are not the only ones at fault. Stephanie Troutman, an assistant professor of women, gender, African, and African-American studies at Berea College believes adults are just as guilty.
Troutman said that the freedom of expression has clouded the harmful truths behind these actions that appear to be innocently created. She explained that within the discussion of these issues “the context, the history, and the significant matter,” is often lost.
As Halloween party-goers prepare for the holiday, Leonard hopes that “offendees” will take a stand to dismiss this behavior rather than “hiding behind a mask of ignorance about racism in America.”