Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter!

Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Column: Call out racist costumes this Halloween

Halloween is not a free pass for mockery, racism or cultural appropriation.

A witch here, a skeleton over there: It’s almost Halloween, but ignorant people will be the scariest thing of all this season.

When October rolls around each year, I dread seeing certain “costumes” that perpetuate biases and reinforce stereotypes. Any holiday, and especially Halloween, is not a free pass for mockery, racism or cultural appropriation.

Like many high schools in the United States, my high school in Seattle had a “spirit week” in late October where students would dress up to fit a different theme each day. Rapper “costumes,” complete with tinfoil “grills” and oversized clothing, were a hit for the 1990s on decades day.

However, not a single one of the students who dressed up as these unnamed rappers were Black, and most of the people who did were white. Multiple students wore durags — a piece of fabric designed specifically to protect Black hair — or wigs that attempted to emulate Black hair.

At a majority-white school, white students have the privilege of simply dressing up in these durags and wigs, while Black people’s hair is policed in workspaces and touched without consent. I watched the same peers who said anti-Black racial slurs and who remained silent when a Black student was arrested on campus imitate their favorite Black rapper. It is absolutely dehumanizing to witness someone dress up as you — the power of your representation is in their hands.

Native American “costumes” are prime examples of cultural appropriation, when someone exploits an aspect of another group’s culture in an offensive or inauthentic way, and you cannot simply “try on” being an Indigenous American. It is someone’s identity that leads to oppression and marginalization, and the same people who wear this “costume” would never dare acknowledge that the land they are on is stolen.

These outfits ignore the incredible diversity of Indigenous tribes, their unique attire and their customs, conveying the makers’ and wearers’ ignorance about Indigenous cultures — cultures they want to profit from, not honor. Seeing Native American “costumes” makes me particularly angry because Indigenous Americans have fought hard for positive representation in the media, where they are often still misrepresented.

Other costumes, like clowns, have distinctly racist origins in the United States — even if they may seem far removed from it today. In 1874, “theatrical actors” James McInyre and Tom Heath created a character called the “tramp clown,” which was intended to grossly depict Black people who had been displaced after emancipation and the end of the Civil War. According to freelance writer and historian Ken Padgett, the infamous white mouths on clowns are also derived from minstrel shows.

Both blackface and minstrel shows were commonplace forms of comedy that perpetuated derogatory caricatures of Black people. While clowns and clown costumes have evolved over time, you should question the origins of the curly wig and exaggerated features.

And if you decide to dress up as a police officer, be sensitive to the system you’re representing and how you act. The police force in my hometown of Seattle is notoriously violent and has a long history of egregious crimes against marginalized people. If you’re inclined to say “not all cops,” I’d ask why you feel the need to dress up as someone from a group known for abusing their power.

As a Black girl who has grown up in predominantly white spaces, I’ve been told I cannot protest these “costumes“ — my complaints were too menial or I was “nitpicking.” But small acts of racism allow systemic racism to function at the all-encompassing level it does, and anyone who speaks out against these smaller acts of racism is not “sensitive” or “dramatic.”

It is dehumanizing to feel voiceless and to be represented by the people who oppress you. Letting people get away with cultural appropriation and racism in costumes sends the message that both these things are socially acceptable and pushes the notion that minorities are not valuable until their existence lends value to that of a privileged party. You shouldn’t be allowed to reap the benefits of another’s culture whilst ignoring and contributing to the oppression of their people — just think of the big corporations who sell these “costumes.”

This Halloween, call out and boycott “costumes” that perpetuate stereotypes about marginalized groups. Even better, write a letter to the higher-ups of respective costume stores to advocate for the removal of such “costumes.” It takes a small amount of effort to ensure you’re not being disrespectful — a costume is not always a costume.

Nyla Moxley, a first-year majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.

More to Discover
Donate to The GW Hatchet