The answer: It depends. Like most issues involving race in our country, avoiding offense at Halloween requires thinking not just about stereotypes or discrimination but also about white supremacy.
One problem with racism is that it advances white supremacy — not just the notion that white people are superior, but also that they are the baseline, the default, the standard in our society. Conduct that presents white people as normal while presenting other groups as exotic (the “magical negro,” for instance) is racist. Behavior that positions nonwhite groups as behind, or sometimes even ahead (such as the trope that East Asians are a “model minority”) is also racist. The tragedy of white supremacy is that it casts whites as ordinarily and fully human, while those of us outside of ordinary — behind, ahead, exotic or something else altogether — are denied full humanity. Living life as the standard is powerful, and that power provides protection, status and agency. Going through life being perceived as abnormal, however, can lead to any number of vulnerabilities. To see others turn the signifiers of that vulnerability into a Halloween costume just adds insult to the injury.
White supremacy, then, can seem benign, as in the case of kids who just want to look the way “Indians” or Polynesian characters look in movies but never in their everyday lives. And white supremacy can be masked as “cross-cultural understanding,” as in the case of parents who “honor” less powerful groups by adorning their children in native or ceremonial dress without understanding the significance of, or appropriate context for, the clothing. Absent that understanding, entire peoples are turned into objects — costumes — for fun. And when we objectify people, we are more likely to take from, harass or hurt them.
All this helps us think a little more clearly about Halloween costumes. Sure, dressing up in a stereotype — a black person as a rapper or an Asian person with a coolie hat — is offensive, but those are the easy cases. Going deeper: Does your getup present another group as unusual when compared to whites? Does it use a white person’s power to don attire that certain groups are punished, humiliated or made uncomfortable for wearing in public? Does it require you to color or darken your skin in simulation of skin color that actually increases the likelihood of violence and harassment for others every day? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, find another costume.
Don’t be fooled by false equivalencies: Sporting an afro to look like Angela Davis is simply not the same as donning a blond wig to be Marilyn Monroe. The latter look is identified with by a more powerful racial group that has been considered the standard, while the former references a hairstyle that young black girls are still punished for wearing to school.
This doesn’t mean that white children can never dress up as nonwhite public figures they admire, or that the national dress of other countries can never be worn by non-natives. But focus on individuals rather than groups, as entire peoples — especially those historically denied power — should not be made into costumes. The most significant component of your costume shouldn’t be the color of a person’s skin. Focus instead on a distinctive style or demeanor that has nothing to do with race nor identity. W.E.B. Du Bois sported bow ties and groomed a dashing mustache. Who could forget J. Lo’s all-white outfit for the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards? Armed with a microphone, red lipstick, a bob, and awful shoulder pads, you can channel Connie Chung. A military jacket, key-earrings and baseball cap recalls A Rhythm Nation. None these costumes require a drop of paint.
Finally, when in doubt, just don’t do it. You or your child’s desire to have fun or be funny doesn’t outweigh the concerns of people around you who don’t want to be caricatured (again) as strange, exotic, abnormal, or different for your amusement — especially when their existence is shaped by challenges (disproportionate rates of poverty, job discrimination or police harassment, for instance) with which you don’t grapple. Dealing with power and white supremacy requires caution, and erring on the side of deference is an expression of power we can all get behind.