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Yesterday, a reader wrote in with an interesting conundrum: How do you politely explain to a friend that their chosen Halloween costume could be racist? Commenter CA lays out the issue:
Obviously, there is a market for costumes that are based on racial discriminations. But I am guessing that the majority of people who purchase these types of costumes are not doing so out of blatant racism, but more out of ignorance that the costume is offensive, or that they are perpetuating a stereotype.
A good friend of mine’s Halloween costume is just one of these types of costumes. My question is—-how do you tell someone, and not just tell them, but explain to them, why a costume like that is offensive? Not everyone has acquired this level of cultural understanding/sensitivity to latent racism (for lack of a better term?) (I know for me it was in college, in a race and media class, that these types of realizations came onto my radar. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments.)
So what is a simple, nonconfrontational and constructive way of telling someone “your costume is racist” or at the very least “your costume could be perceived as racially offensive by many people” ? Thoughts?
Your mission—-sensitively informing a friend that their Halloween joy is a product of racial stereotype—-is a valiant one. But given the high level of defensiveness surrounding accusations of racism, the conversation will likely turn tricky. I don’t have any personal experience with The Your Halloween Costume Is Racist Talk, but I have read some tips from other sources that might help you out.
* Don’t make it personal. Try starting a general conversation with your friend about a well-publicized racist Halloween costume—-not hers—-and comments you have read from people who have been offended by the costume. This “sexy illegal alien costume,” which was hopefully not your friend’s choice, would make for a pretty good jumping-off point to talk about two common issues in Halloween costumes: (1) visual jokes which imply that certain groups of people are not fully human, and (2) “sexy” costumes which tend to objectify racial minorities. Last month, meloukhia, the author of the wonderful blog this ain’t livin’, described how avoiding direct accusations can help people learn the error of their ways:
So, recently, I made a stupid comment on the Internet. I know, shocking. And someone else responded to the post I commented on, and pointed out that my comment was stupid without explicitly calling me out on it, simply by talking about the issues in the post. It was actually pretty sly, because I read that comment and was like “right on,” and then realized “oh, wait, this person is kind of talking about the fact that I AM AN ASS.” I thought it was a great correction, because it allowed me to respond honestly and without defensiveness.
Perhaps your friend will realize on her own that her costume is kinda racist, and start thinking of some other options.
* Realize that they will probably take it personally anyway. It’s likely that your trick-or-treat buddy is going to be pretty attached to her Halloween costume idea, especially if she’s already shelled out for her “sexy squaw” wig. A person’s investment in their chosen Halloween costume goes far beyond the price-tag. This shit can get emotional. Your friend has probably been imagining herself wearing her outfit for the past couple of weeks, and has definitely tried it on—-maybe more than once. Nobody likes to be called on their racism, ever. But on Halloween, when a person’s unintentional racism is nevertheless put proudly on display—-when it becomes their very identity for an evening—-the possibility that your friend might react defensively is pretty high.
At this point, it might be to helpful to point out that members of the group that stand to be offended by your friend’s costume have to live with their marginalized identities 24/7. Your friend may think you’re trying to ruin her Halloween fun. But really, racist stereotypes ruin a lot of people’s fun every day of their lives, and delicately making that clear may convince your friend that changing up the costume isn’t too much of a sacrifice. Alternately, perhaps you can suggest how she might convert her costume elements into a less offensive final product?
* Ask your friend if she has any reservations about wearing the costume in public. Just straight up ask her if she’s worried about any indigenous Alaskans seeing her Sexy Eskimo Costume. Sometimes, offensive costume wearers don’t even consider the possibility that a person from the minority group they’ve dressed as will actually see them. Georgetown student Anna Bank realized this when she confronted a fellow student about his Halloween costume last year. The guy, who had dressed up as Georgetown sexual assault suspect the “Georgetown cuddler,” expressed to her that he “hoped that nobody who was a victim of the cuddling actually saw his costume, because he thought that that might be upsetting.” Sometimes, the simple realization that the people a racist costume is meant to lampoon actually exist—- and will likely be at your Halloween party—-is enough to make a costume-wearer reconsider.
* On the other hand, perhaps your friend likes the costume because it is racist. Some people do wear costumes because they find the absurd stereotypes hilarious . . . on an “ironic” level. The theory—-I assume—-is, “Oh! Look at that horribly racist costume targeted at women from the Middle East! I will wear it to point out how awful the costume industry has become!” Here, it is probably enough to point out that even though your friend does not intend to be racist, that strangers won’t be aware of her intentions just by looking at her.
If anyone knows any other helpful strategies, please file them in the comments. And if anyone ends up speaking with a friend about this issu —-or simply plans to confront any racist-costumed strangers they spy on Halloween night—-please let us know how it goes.