What Qualifies As An Offensive Halloween Costume?

By Alan Montecillo (OPB)
Oct. 30, 2015 9:08 p.m.

Flickr/Kristina Alexanderson


Every year, Americans prepare for Halloween with candy and costumes. And every year, the issue of offensive Halloween costumes depicting racial minorities seems to rise to the surface. In Alabama, a fifth-grade teacher drew ire for

wearing blackface as part of a Kanye West costume

. Recently, Buzzfeed has made videos showing

Native Americans trying on "Indian" costumes


Sally Newman is the manager of Helen's Pacific Costumery. She says that while these kinds of costumes aren't the most popular items, they do spark conversation at the shop, especially since several of her coworkers are part Native American.

"Their attitude toward it is, if someone wants to come in and try the costume, that's fine," Newman told Think Out Loud guest host April Baer on Friday. "The former manager has said that if someone comes in and asks for a squaw, she says, 'We don't have that.'"

"On the whole, as long as they're not a jerk about it, it's okay. Now, sometimes people come in and what they want to do is be the sexy Indian from the Village People. And where does that fall in the grey area of racial representation? It is a conundrum," Newman said.


"It's definitely much more of an issue today than it was when I was a child," said Se-ah-dom Edmo, coordinator of Lewis & Clark College's Indigenous Ways of Knowing program and president of the Oregon Indian Education Association.

Edmo argued that there is a strong connection between people dressing up as Native Americans and institutional racism in the United States.

For Edmo, headdresses are particularly unwelcome examples of people disrespecting Native American culture.

"Those eagle feathers are like medals to our leaders," she said, likening wearing a headdress to wearing a military uniform and pretending to be a war hero.

Simon Tam, social justice activist and founder of the Asian-American rock band The Slants,  said that while there isn't necessarily "a clear-cut line," people who are part of racially discriminated groups also don't have the option of changing out of their race after Halloween is over.

"For people who want to dress up as a racial minority, it's interesting to think about because on Nov. 1, they can wash off the makeup. They can take off the headdress, or whatever costume they're wearing," said Tam. "If people are just like, 'Oh, I'm just doing it for fun! I'm just playing,' that might be true for you, but for those of us in those communities, we still have to live with these faces and expressions of how people look at our cultures on a day-to-day basis, far beyond Halloween."

But what about costumes that pay homage to well-known characters, like Bruce Lee, for example?

"If somebody wants to wear a Bruce Lee tracksuit, I think that's great. I actually think it's kind of cool, because they're putting on an iconic figure," Tam said. "Now, if they step over the line and tape their eyes back and paint their skin yellow, then they're portraying some racial stereotypes. And I think that is a line that's being crossed."

Edmo also pointed out that Native American women experience some of the highest rates of sexual assaults in the United States. While it may be a "slippery slope," dressing up in sexualized Native American outfits reflects a lack of familiarity with the real dangers Native Americans face.

"When you start to objectify an entire group of people it makes it easier for those things to be accepted," she said.

"The reality is that people can wear whatever costumes they want, they can use whatever language they want — including racial slurs," Tam said. "But at the end of the day, they also have to live with those consequences as well."

Tam said he was too busy traveling that he just plans to spend Halloween at home, with his dogs. Edmo plans to go trick or treating with her three kids.

"I'm Olaf, from 'Frozen.' And I like warm hugs!" she said.