Cultures are NOT Costumes

The Addamson Family
My roommates and I as the Swedish Addamson Family sophomore year of college.

Halloween is upon us. I’ve always loved Halloween. Not for its spooky vibes, but because I love playing dress up! Imagining I’ve become a different person for an evening is an absolute delight.

But Halloween costumes aren’t all harmless.

Every year I hear about a few morons dressing in blackface or as Arab “terrorists” or Somali women. This kind of costuming is not funny. It is dehumanizing, thoughtless, and offensive.

It doesn’t really matter what your true intentions were in these situations. If there’s a chance your costume would offend someone’s culture, ethnicity, or skin color–just don’t wear it. Period.

But don’t take my word for it. Other writers on the web have said it very well already:

Lisa Wade’s post at Sociological Images displays the plethora of costumes that commodify and denigrate cultures.

As far as I can figure it, Halloween costumes come in three categories: scary, funny, or fantastical.  This is why dressing up like another “race” or “culture” for Halloween is racist.  A “Mexican Man,” for example (see below), should not be presented as scary, funny, or fantastical. -Lisa Wade, PhD

Click here to see examples of racist costumes on Lisa’s post.

Students at Ohio University  made this poster to speak out against dressing up as another ethnic group. “Ohio University Students Say ‘Not Okay’ To Wear Just Anything for Halloween,” My Shades Magazine.



Blogger Austin Channing Brown gives 6 tips to avoid “cultural commodification” in her post “Happy Halloween For All” Be sure to read her whole piece, but here are the highlights:

  1. No black face.
  2. Imitate achievement, not race.
  3. Stay away from First Nations (Native American) wear, please.
  4. Yes your child can dress up like someone of a different race.
  5. Uplift rather than demean.

Read the whole thing here.

Photo by William Warby
Photo by William Warby


Before you choose your costume–or help your kids pick one–consider WHO it is you are portraying. If your costume comes at the expense of another culture, find something else to wear.

If you don’t understand why this stuff matters, do a little research. I did some for you to make it easy:

The History of Minstrelsy (blackface)

Why the Hijab Costume is Racist

Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualization of Native Women

It’s not worth it.

Do you have an experience with culturally insensitive costumes? Did you wear one and regret it later? Was your culture portrayed in an offensive way? What did you do?

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: