Racist Costumes Are Just What We Don’t Need on Halloween

“You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.” This is the message of a poster campaign created by Ohio University students, to tell people to think twice before dressing up in Halloween costumes that draw on denigrating racist stereotypes. Far from “just for fun,” such costumes show how deeply embedded racist attitudes still are in our society.

The campaign by the group, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), resonates far beyond the Ohio University campus. Racist attitudes are still pervasive in U.S. culture today: Asian American activists have been criticizing the just-released movie Cloud Atlas for casting white, Western actors in “yellow face” to portray Asians. All of us should question the actions of a  New Jersey storeowner who displayed a picture of President Barack Obama as a “witch doctor” and of a California man who hung a lynched effigy of President Barack Obama from a tree and has claimed it is just a “Halloween decoration.”

“We’re a culture, not a costume”

To make the point that “We’re a culture, not a costume,” each poster shows two figures, one in a costume based on racial stereotypes and one from a different racial or ethnic group who directly meets the gaze of the viewer.

An Asian American man is paired with a figure wearing glasses, carrying a bowl of white rice speared with chopsticks and a pile of textbooks. A woman wearing a hijab is shown next to a veiled figure in belly-dancing attire. An African-American man is shown beside a figure in blackface wearing a baseball cap and wielding a gun. A figure with a cigarette and a swollen belly appears beside a Latina woman. A guitar-playing, flannel-shirted figure poses beside a white student. An African-American student is next to a someone with her head wrapped in a scarf and animal skins draped over her chest.

The posters are displayed around the Ohio University campus. STARS’ goals are to

facilitate discussion about diversity and all isms (sexism, classism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism etc.) with an emphasis on racial issues. We aim to raise awareness about social justice, and promote racial harmony. Our job is to create a safe, non-threatening environment to allow participants to feel comfortable to express their feelings. Our guiding principle is based on the principle “Each One Teach One.”

Former STARS president Sarah Williams got the idea for the campaign, which first ran last year, after seeing a student in blackface at a party in 2010. Such reports and others of mock “slave auctions” (at an elementary school and by a Missouri professor on the steps of the old St. Louis courthouse) are potent wake-up calls about the persistent entrenchment of racism among us.

Indeed, disability activists were outraged when Ann Coulter called President Obama a “retard” on Twitter last week. Coulter has been seeking to defend herself for a remark that (understatement) insulted individuals with intellectual disabilities like my own son. I find her comments completely repulsive and indefensible as her remark also drew on deeply disturbing and false — and dangerous — assumptions about African-Americans’ intelligence.

Racist Halloween costumes, and comments like Coulter’s, are not “harmless.” As a STARS spokesperson, Laura Hyde, tells Colorlines.com, the posters are meant to combat such underlying discriminatory attitudes and promote much-needed ”awareness, dialogue and understanding about racism as well as all other forms of oppression and how they manifest themselves in our society today.”

What’s truly harmful, as well as shameful, is how some individuals are using a holiday that is supposed to be about kids having fun as an excuse to air antiquated and ugly ideas.

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Image courtesy of STARS


natasha p
.about a month ago

belly dancer is cool

Helga G.
Helga Ganguly5 years ago

While I don't think dressing like a Belly Dancer is racist,(how could I since I've dressed both my daughters in Belly Dancer costumes?). The outfits were very well done,hand-beaded in India,look absolutely gorgeous on my daughters who were over 16 one was in her 20's,and both have an Indian father. So they looked appropriate worn to a party. However I find no humour at all in an Obama Witch Doctor or Effigy hanging from a tree. The dancers a done respectfully and do not mock the culture. The Presidential costume is meant to ridicule and make a negative statement on a children's holiday. It borders on treason. To say you won't vote because all politicians are liars is just plain lazy or juvenile. Did you not have 8th grade History and read about Black people being hung as a method of intimidation to discourage them from voting in the 1960's? That's at the very least,in very poor taste. And it very much is racist. Whether you like our President or not, you should not think that this is funny.

Tammy B.
Tammy B.5 years ago

Is it raceist to dream of being a belly dancer? I see it more like Halloween is one time of the year a person can dress the way they'd like to on a lot more of the days of the year and may not really have the nerve too. I don't see raceisim in a belly dance attire. I see someone dressed like that living a dream I have always had. I think to have to call it raceist is sick and overboard and extreme. But then who am I? I rather think the Barak Obama as a Witch doctor or hung Lynched from a tree is pretty funny. Personally, I mean I just don't like him. Not at all. Further I refuse to vote since all of the candidates lie. And whenever one honest politician steps forward, that person will get my vote.

New G.
W. C5 years ago

Thank you for the article.

Carol M.
carol m5 years ago

Halloween should be a time for kids to dress up and have fun not to be offensive to anyone.

Gysele van Santen

for someone to call this article mindless drivel, they sure did write a long comment.

thnx for the post.

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Lynn Squance
Lynn S5 years ago

Oops! I forgot to add, how about the Republican politician that was encouraging Republican kids to take the candy of Democratic kids?

The BS has to stop. People have to start thinking like they care about other people.

Lynn Squance
Lynn S5 years ago

To me, Hallowe'en is for kids --- making their costumes of a fairy princess, or a robot or an animal of some kind or something else that captures their imagination, and is supervised by mum or dad for appropriateness and safety. But adults (high school students on up) have a responsibility to think about what they are wearing to ensure that it is not offensive. I have an adult friend that went as a tube of toothpaste while her husband went as a toothbrush. At work for several years, I went as a pumpkin stuffed with pillows and had the audacity to walk down the street for lunch dressed in my costume. I sure did make a lot of people laugh and even got the attention of a few truckdrivers who gave me an appreciative toot! Another friend dressed as a spear of asparagus. There are lots of things that people can dress as without insulting other cultures.

Beth S.
Beth S5 years ago

Uh oh, dressed as a black and white skunk. This is cleary racist and anti-animal rights. Maybe Kristina can do a piece on people dressing up as animals as anti-animal and disrespectful.