Thursday, October 1, 2020
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Costumes, Not Cultural Stereotypes

By Summer Wong

Halloween is undoubtedly one of the most popular and hyped-up holidays of the year. Oct. 31 is the day in which people have the opportunity to dress up and be creative with costumes the most important part of the Halloween tradition.

Halloween is a day when participants “become” different people, but some are abusing this opportunity as a chance to be offensive. Racial and ethnic stereotypes have become a prominent theme among Halloween costumes, and this promotion of stereotypes is insensitive and wrong down to its roots.

Girls sexualize “dragon lady” geishas by wearing revealing kimonos. Others wear blackface to make fun of black people or black culture.  Some people wear Middle Eastern clothing, call themselves Muslim and strap fake bombs around their chests.

Although it might not be intentional, the people who wear these costumes are promoting cultural stereotypes. They might not realize the consequences of their actions on other people, but there’s real harm that comes with these costumes.

When a culture is portrayed in a stereotypical and offensive way by individuals of other races, people of that culture start feeling ashamed of it. The culture that each one of us identifies with is unique, extremely diverse and a major part of our identities. We should feel confident about who we are. These Halloween costumes are basically telling every single one of us that we are not equal, stripping us of our uniqueness.

Those who wear blackface are insensitive to the millions of black people who were segregated and prejudiced against in the past, when white plantation owners would poke fun at their slaves. Likewise, girls who dress as “dragon lady” geishas stereotype Asian women as submissive and doll-like individuals whose only goal is to please others.

In the same vein, a guy dressed as a Muslim in a turban suit with a fake bomb strapped to his chest is highly insulting because he caricatures Muslims as terrorists rather than simply normal, religious persons.

“This [costume] insults those who lost loved ones during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, insults American soldiers injured or killed in pursuit of Al Qaeda and perpetuates negative stereotypes about turbans and beards that have led to violence and discrimination against Sikhs and other minorities,” said Rajdeep Singh, Director of Law and Policy at the Sikh Coalition.

We really have to pause and think about the costumes we are wearing, the culture we are representing and whether it is ever appropriate to promote these stereotypes.

Some may argue that Halloween is just a day to have fun, and that these costumes are just a joke, so no real harm is done. However, that is blatantly untrue.

According to Abed Ayoub, Legal and Policy Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, “The compound effects of all these negative stereotypes can lead to hate crimes.”

Our views and primary knowledge of other cultures stem from what we observe every day, whether it is on media, newspapers, our interactions with other people and what we see from holidays like Halloween. It’s every little interaction and observation that makes a difference in how we perceive people of different culture.

On Halloween, when I see girls trying to act like sexy geishas or dressed in traditional Chinese cheongsams with chopsticks in their hair and white powder on their faces, it gets me riled up. It’s saying that those costumes are what all Asians are like. This caricature of Asian individuals is both hurtful and offensive and disregards the diverse and rich history of each Asian country.

Students from Ohio University’s Students Teaching about Racism in Society (STARS) club started the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign  to spread awareness and prevent cultures from being translated into stereotypical costumes through the use of posters. In the posters, individuals of a particular race would hold up a stereotypical Halloween costume of their culture. The caption “Not who I am, and this is not okay” is written on the top. This ad campaign went viral.

Jelani Cobb, a professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University, argues that it’s not just individual people who are affected by the negative portrayal of their culture through costumes. Our society suffers as well in its ability to  establish a true democracy since we are not all  viewed as equals.

“What underlies this kind of costuming is the belief that these people aren’t quite equal to what we are or aren’t as American as we are, or that you as a person who’s not a member of that group should be able to dictate how painful the stereotype should be,” said Cobb.

Halloween is a day to have fun, but let’s not have fun at the expense of others. We cannot just borrow and represent someone else’s culture for a day because for thousands of other people, the costumes are not just costumes. It’s who they are everyday.


Summer Wong is a first year biological sciences major. She can be reached at