Does this costume make me look racist?

by: MSC Communications Intern, Ashley Reum

This post was inspired by the Wisconsin Black Student Union, the Filipino American Student Organization, and Sex Out Loud who are hosting the Monster’s Ball, a Halloween party held in Tripp Commons from 9pm-12:30am on October 25th, 2013. The event aims to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students, especially students of color. Goodies such as candy and condoms will be passed out and admission is free. In order to attend, they only ask that your costume is appropriate.

Growing up, I loved everything about Halloween. Not only did I get to collect bags full of free candy from my neighbors, I got to dress up and pretend to be someone else for a night. Throughout my adolescence I embodied a princess, a witch, a power ranger and a variety of other costumes my grandmother tailored for me and my siblings. It wasn’t until I got to college that I noticed the racism and ignorance that often comes with inappropriate Halloween costumes. I became very bitter towards the holiday I used to love. I grew tired of seeing these same offensive and insensitive costumes every year and categorized them all as racist.

Images from:, and Google searches of Mexican halloween costumes

Images from:, and Google searches of Mexican halloween costumes

However, the assumptions I made were just as ignorant as the inappropriate costumes I would see on Halloween. It’s very easy to call someone racist based on my own perceptions. We see their attire and automatically assume they’ve made an informed decision to wear an offensive costume. In order to create awareness, we need to understand not everyone has the same background and experiences. For some students, UW is the most diversity they have ever seen. Instead of labeling these people as racist, we could deconstruct why their costume is racist, and how we can express that message in a safe space.

The hard part isn’t thinking someone’s costume is racist or insensitive. It’s knowing exactly why it’s offensive. I’ve sorted inappropriate costumes into three general categories to act as guidelines for understanding why a costume might be seen as racist.

1. Costumes that appropriate a culture. These are costumes that pull inspiration from cultures without knowing what it means. A very common example is sugar skull face painting. Although the painting may look authentic, they are taking a tradition from people who celebrate Dia De Los Muertos without knowing what it means.

2. Romanticizing a culture. This is seen in “poca-hottie,” gypsy, belly dancer, and geisha costumes. They are over-sexualized and their perceived lifestyle is fantasized. However, many of these costumes have ties to oppression, rape and genocide.

3. Stereotyping. The Mariachi, the Kimono princess and the kung fu master all strip down a culture and emphasize and exaggerate one characteristic. This perpetuates the idea that this is the entirety of their culture. Another costume to pay attention to are ones that attach an ethnicity or a symbol of one’s culture to negative stereotype. This is evident in suicide bomber costumes that have keffiyehs. This attaches a Middle Eastern tradition with the stigma of terrorism.


Image from:

These categories act as guidelines and the deconstruction and analysis of costumes are not limited by them. Before we point fingers this Halloween, remember many students might not know the implications of their costume. A student group at Ohio University created a powerful campaign to illustrate “we’re a culture, not a costume.”  These posters can also serve as guidelines as to whether a Halloween costume might offend someone.  For the rest of the month, these posters will also be hung throughout the Multicultural Student Center and other Red Gym offices.

For more interesting takes on insensitive Halloween costumes, check out the links below: