The Sexist

How to Inform a Friend Their Halloween Costume Is Racist

sexy eskimo

Yesterday, a reader wrote in with an interesting conundrum: How do you politely explain to a friend that their chosen Halloween costume could be racist? Commenter CA lays out the issue:

Obviously, there is a market for costumes that are based on racial discriminations. But I am guessing that the majority of people who purchase these types of costumes are not doing so out of blatant racism, but more out of ignorance that the costume is offensive, or that they are perpetuating a stereotype.

A good friend of mine’s Halloween costume is just one of these types of costumes. My question is—how do you tell someone, and not just tell them, but explain to them, why a costume like that is offensive? Not everyone has acquired this level of cultural understanding/sensitivity to latent racism (for lack of a better term?) (I know for me it was in college, in a race and media class, that these types of realizations came onto my radar. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments.)

So what is a simple, nonconfrontational and constructive way of telling someone “your costume is racist” or at the very least “your costume could be perceived as racially offensive by many people” ? Thoughts?

Your mission—sensitively informing a friend that their Halloween joy is a product of racial stereotype—is a valiant one. But given the high level of defensiveness surrounding accusations of racism, the conversation will likely turn tricky. I don't have any personal experience with The Your Halloween Costume Is Racist Talk, but I have read some tips from other sources that might help you out.

* Don't make it personal. Try starting a general conversation with your friend about a well-publicized racist Halloween costume—not hers—and comments you have read from people who have been offended by the costume. This "sexy illegal alien costume," which was hopefully not your friend's choice, would make for a pretty good jumping-off point to talk about two common issues in Halloween costumes: (1) visual jokes which imply that certain groups of people are not fully human, and (2) "sexy" costumes which tend to objectify racial minorities. Last month, meloukhia, the author of the wonderful blog this ain't livin', described how avoiding direct accusations can help people learn the error of their ways:

So, recently, I made a stupid comment on the Internet. I know, shocking. And someone else responded to the post I commented on, and pointed out that my comment was stupid without explicitly calling me out on it, simply by talking about the issues in the post. It was actually pretty sly, because I read that comment and was like “right on,” and then realized “oh, wait, this person is kind of talking about the fact that I AM AN ASS.” I thought it was a great correction, because it allowed me to respond honestly and without defensiveness.

Perhaps your friend will realize on her own that her costume is kinda racist, and start thinking of some other options.

* Realize that they will probably take it personally anyway. It's likely that your trick-or-treat buddy is going to be pretty attached to her Halloween costume idea, especially if she's already shelled out for her "sexy squaw" wig. A person's investment in their chosen Halloween costume goes far beyond the price-tag. This shit can get emotional. Your friend has probably been imagining herself wearing her outfit for the past couple of weeks, and has definitely tried it on—maybe more than once. Nobody likes to be called on their racism, ever. But on Halloween, when a person's unintentional racism is nevertheless put proudly on display—when it becomes their very identity for an evening—the possibility that your friend might react defensively is pretty high.

At this point, it might be to helpful to point out that members of the group that stand to be offended by your friend's costume have to live with their marginalized identities 24/7. Your friend may think you're trying to ruin her Halloween fun. But really, racist stereotypes ruin a lot of people's fun every day of their lives, and delicately making that clear may convince your friend that changing up the costume isn't too much of a sacrifice. Alternately, perhaps you can suggest how she might convert her costume elements into a less offensive final product?

* Ask your friend if she has any reservations about wearing the costume in public. Just straight up ask her if she's worried about any indigenous Alaskans seeing her Sexy Eskimo Costume. Sometimes, offensive costume wearers don't even consider the possibility that a person from the minority group they've dressed as will actually see them. Georgetown student Anna Bank realized this when she confronted a fellow student about his Halloween costume last year. The guy, who had dressed up as Georgetown sexual assault suspect the "Georgetown cuddler," expressed to her that he "hoped that nobody who was a victim of the cuddling actually saw his costume, because he thought that that might be upsetting." Sometimes, the simple realization that the people a racist costume is meant to lampoon actually exist— and will likely be at your Halloween party—is enough to make a costume-wearer reconsider.

* On the other hand, perhaps your friend likes the costume because it is racist. Some people do wear costumes because they find the absurd stereotypes hilarious . . . on an "ironic" level. The theory—I assume—is, "Oh! Look at that horribly racist costume targeted at women from the Middle East! I will wear it to point out how awful the costume industry has become!" Here, it is probably enough to point out that even though your friend does not intend to be racist, that strangers won't be aware of her intentions just by looking at her.

If anyone knows any other helpful strategies, please file them in the comments. And if anyone ends up speaking with a friend about this issu —or simply plans to confront any racist-costumed strangers they spy on Halloween night—please let us know how it goes.

  • Suicide_blond

    Or you could send an SomE card there was one
    that said something bout: hope your Obama costume
    includes a mask and NOT shoe polish
    seriously : I too had an aha moment when a total
    stranger took the time to sensitively explain that
    not everyone prayed to the same god ... When I was
    a ten yr old who didn't understand the whole prayer in school
    hullabaloo- I wish I could thank him

  • Victor

    "Not everyone has acquired this level of cultural understanding/sensitivity to latent racism.."

    Oh for christ sakes... it isn't Buddhist enlightenment. The writer makes it sound like one's life-goal should be to reach the highest level of racial/cultural sensitivity possible.

  • Katie

    @Victor: is that such a bad life-goal to have?

    And my sympathies go out to the man/woman who wrote in...I have also had my share of struggles trying to explain why costumes (not necessarily Halloween) are racist. I'm thinking along the lines of "Straight Outta Harlem" frat parties...ugh. I think it becomes difficult when someone genuinely wants to dress as someone of another race from his/her own (and not just a blanket character like "gangster," a big-time offender). I don't think that on its own is racist, because what if that person is a personal hero? That being seems pretty safe to say that any ethnic/racially-based store-bought costume is going to be stereotypical and offensive to some.

  • Stereotype

    Then is the African-American brother in my frat (mixed race IFC) at college in Indiana (big guy, 6'4" 275), who thought wearing full Klan regalia was a scream and a half on Halloween. It was...going into the all white frats and seeing the look in those nice boys eyes...

    Just to smack a stereotype back in their faces...

    Har, Har, Har

  • Native American JD in DC

    Victor went as a bandido last weekend.

    Maybe it wasn't Victor, but it was a douche at the party I was at last weekend.

    Yep, when I lived in Arizona, every Mexican wore a pancho, had a burnt cork mustache, and cigarillo.

    Stupid Republicans.

  • Jane

    I don't think the author was trying to say that ones life goal should be to attain an enlightened understanding/ sympathy to latent racism. I beleive he was making a lighthearted slightly self effacing observation that not all racism is so obvious.

    Love the article. It's amazing how many not quite racist but not quite non-racist (must refer back to race and gender studies to remember the language of these issues) slip under the radar. The word racist isn't the right one fir many of these things. The r word is in danger of losing gravity if it continues to be usedasks misused as often has it has been. Many of the things dubbed racist nowadays do not have the intent of undermining a race. They are indeed born of social/ cultural
    ignorance but not of malicious intent.
    Perhaps we do need an enlightening of the masses to the origins of our latent racism

  • U.S. Citizen

    Fuck political correctness! Political correctness is destroying the United States of America. People are walking around on egg shells afraid they are going to offend someone. Grow up and get a fucking life.

  • Reid

    See don't you guys get it. It's not acceptable to be concerned about making angry people who have been stereotyped and debased. You must only be concerned about making U.S. Citizens angry by your concern for other people.

  • Former Staffer

    Yeah, because US Citizens, after being kicked out of their mother country, came here to pillage and ethnically cleanse a not quite New World, stealing land from the local inhabitants while pushing them West under the theory that Manifest Destiny had given them a right to act like Nazis in America. In actuality they'd been kicked out of Europe for their own religious intolerance.

    So yes, US Citizen, politically correctness is destroying the US. You color your history to fit your world view, when in actuality you're just a jackbooted thug.

    You know why New Mexico is called New Mexico? Because it was Old Mexico before the US and white ranchers stole it from its rightful owners.


  • jules

    The delts at the school I went for undergrad (also in Indiana) hosted a "ghetto fabulous" party. I cringed.

  • Amanda Hess

    3:08 a.m., dude?

  • Ryan @ Mr Costumes

    Well sometimes something little too harmful should just be brought out in the open. I know some people will just end up getting angry with you right back so it's a tough call. I would tend to mind my own business and let the person find out the hard way!

  • Conrad Davis

    "A true patriot knows neither season nor hour of night -- George Washington" Michael Scott

  • vijay jain

    besides informing them that the costume they chosen is racist, i would tell them to wear it. because we have to move forward not backward. we shoukd try to make society free of all these dead evils.

  • Joe Schmoe

    What's the point of being offended, or offended on the behalf of others, if you're to be a pussy.

    My suggestion:
    1) Grab friend by lapels
    2) Shake violently
    3) Shout "Are you a fucking idiot?!!"
    4) Possibly lose friend.
    5) Don't lose sleep.
    6) Move on.

  • Matt

    If it's really your friend, then you should be able to talk about anything. How ridiculous.

  • faisalali

    Fashion for the most part is nothing but the ostentation of riches.

  • Bear


    ******************TO MY BROTHERS MUCH L&R***************


  • ms s

    Um, could we stop with the "racist costume" accusations? The flap over "alien" costumes was ridiculous.

    And as for the "great" idea from a blog to "post back discussing the issue"? Um, no. guess what? 99.9% of readers are NOT going to get that it's about THEM.

    Grow up, people and let things go. Sheesh. You really don't have better things to worry about?

  • Thomas

    ms s.

    the "flap" over alien costumes was NOT ridiculous...did you not notice that the alien was wearing a sombrero and mexican-style dress? no?

    it's pretty sad that you think a valid solution to racism is to "grow up" and "let things go". sure! caring that people are parading around in costumes that not only offend ethnic groups but, on a more serious level, help to ingrain prejudices in the minds of their peers and make racism more acceptable (because, come on guys, "it's only a joke" or "i'm being ironic!" ... ah, irony. it

  • Thomas

    (sorry i hit 'submit' before finishing last post)

    irony: the blanket defence and 'get out of jail free' card for all prejudice) ... caring about this is immature, right? and there are far more important things to worry about than mocking an entire ethnicity and, furthermore, making it ok for others to do so, right?

  • C.M.

    Jay Smooth has a pretty good video about telling people things they've said/done are racist.

  • Quercki

    I'm seconding the Jay Smooth video. It's good.

  • CA

    Thanks for blogging about this, I really appreciated everyone's opinions.

    It was a tough situation, and I probably didn't handle it in the best way. I actually wrote this question after I encountered the situation. When he told me about his costume I just blurted out "Are you serious? That is so racist!" without really thinking about it, because I was so surprised! He is a good friend, so it was fine. But he did not mean it in a hurtful way, so I should've used one of the tactics Amanda mentioned.

    Anyway, he ended up not wearing the costume - I am not sure if it was bc of what I said or other reasons. But I am guessing he probably thought about it and decided it was potentially offensive, and that was at least one of his reasons he chose not to wear it.

  • Harlequin

    I love these debates, like any one of you gets to decide what is and is not racist for others. What if they actually are Indian, or Mexican, or Chinese? Is it still so cut and dried, do we still get to grab them by the lapels and shake violently as in Joe's steps 1 & 2? Where's the line? Only racist costumes get grief, not homophobic, or anti-religious, or gender-bending? Where's the line?