Halloween Costumes and Identity

Every year, as Halloween rolls around, many people put extra time and effort into conceiving of and constructing their costumes. Unfortunately, several popular costumes rely on racist stereotypes that disrespect an entire culture. While those who chose to wear such costumes may not believe they are causing any harm, plenty of others often feel offended. This is not just limited to individuals who believe their cultural heritage is being belittled.  Rather, it stretches to anyone concerned about racism, stereotypes and cultural diversity more broadly. 

A student group at Ohio University has launched a campaign addressing this issue, seeking to remind their peers that there are real people behind the stereotypes that racist costumes depict. The campaign has generated a lot of discussion—some people fully support its message, while others argue that a costume is just a costume and that those who are offended need to lighten up. But where does one draw the line between playfulness and offensiveness, between fun and insult? 
 
This issue in general seems to highlight some of the ways in which racism has become engrained in American society. This phenomenon of Halloween costumes based on racist stereotypes also illustrates the tendency to ignore intra-group diversity, or “diversity within diversity” as we call it at Tanenbaum, and instead think that all members of a particular culture are exactly the same. In actuality, there are layers upon layers of diversity within any given group. Indeed, identity is a very personal, highly subjective, ever-evolving concept—something far too complex to convey through just a few pieces of clothing.
 
Tanenbaum’s Religion and Diversity Education program seeks to highlight and explore the complicated nature of identity and to raise awareness among both teachers and students as to the many ways in which individuals relate to their identities, and how these identities influence their lives. One particular activity, on social identity, points out several different types of identifiers—gender, religion, ethnicity, ability, and more—that exist within just one individual. These various components of social identity are shaped by common histories, shared experiences, legal and historical decisions and day to day interactions, each of which somehow informs who we are and how we relate to the world. Far from reflecting reality, stereotypes discount such complexities and, as such, reinforce the idea that culture remains static, both over time and among individuals. Halloween costumes that are stereotypes of identity are thus, by their very being, insensitive and harmful, overlooking the true nature of diversity and identity while promulgating false notions of culture that complicate our quest for a truly non-biased, non-racist society.
 
Jael Goldstein
Project Assistant, Education