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Once upon a time, Halloween costumes were simple. Witches, princesses, and ghosts surfaced as the most popular get-ups. Not so anymore. In recent decades, the public has taken a fancy to costumes that make a statement.
Unfortunately, these costumes sometimes make statements viewed as racist or anti-Semitic, such as when England's Prince Harry donned a Nazi outfit to a party. Want to make a splash with your Halloween costume but not one that's racially offensive? Then avoid the following get-ups.
Ghetto Person/Black Person
Rappers introduced the term “ghetto fabulous” into the American lexicon in the 1990s. The term refers to the flamboyant fashions that arise from the streets of inner cities. Who knew in the '90s that college kids nationwide would throw parties in the new millennium with “ghetto fab” themes? Guests at such parties sport lots of “bling,” or ostentatious jewelry. Some might cover their teeth with fake gold or platinum caps and their heads with do-rags. Women might wear huge hoop earrings, fake fingernails and the scanty clothing that rap video vixens wear. Men might style their hair in cornrows or don Afro wigs.
The problem with these ghetto fab costumes is that they invoke stereotypical images of African Americans as low-class, gauche, thuggish and sexually provocative, among others. These costumes tend to be classist and racist, impelling black college students who become aware of “ghetto fab” parties to have disciplinary action taken against party organizers for creating a racially hostile environment on campus.
The flipside of the ghetto fab costume is the redneck or hillbilly Halloween costume, which is also both racist and classist. Those opting for such a costume might wear a mullet wig, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat, along with jeans and a plaid shirt. Such costumes promote the stereotype that poor whites are ignorant and worthy of ridicule. They suggest that poor and working-class whites are inherently inferior to their more affluent counterparts.
Oddly enough, the geisha girl costume is popular among girls and women, alike. Considering that geishas are perceived to be high-end prostitutes in many circles, that's cause for concern. Also troubling is that, along with the dragon lady, china doll, and lotus blossom, geisha girl is a racial and sexual stereotype thrust upon Asian women. The geisha stereotype is one that paints Asian women as submissive, doll-like and existing only to sexually gratify others.
A contributor to Racialicous.com who goes by the name Atlasien poignantly spelled out why she objects to the appropriation of the geisha image.
“Geisha are not very relevant in modern-day Japan. They're a fossilized archetype, almost like a ninja,” she remarked. “But a lot of people, especially white people, are invested in defending geisha, in putting them on a pedestal. And when they do that, it does harm to Japanese-American women and to all Asian-American women.”
The 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon not only put Arab and Muslim Americans under additional scrutiny in the U.S., but they also resulted in a rise in costumes related to Islamic fundamentalism. Want to wear a burqa for Halloween? There's a costume for it. How about a Muslim suicide bomber? That costume's available as well. The question is why would you want to wear one of these costumes? They're far more likely to offend people you encounter than to make them laugh. To boot, they raise the worst stereotypes about Muslim Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom are peaceful and law-abiding citizens.
American Indians (With or Without Cowboys)
Considering the backlash against Native American mascots in sports, it should be no surprise that donning an American Indian costume is likely to rub some the wrong way. Whether you're a kid dressing up as an Indian during a Thanksgiving play or an adult rooting for your favorite sports team while wearing faux war paint and a headdress, you're likely to get a reaction because these costumes typically paint Native Americans as cartoonish and savage.
Throwing cowboys into the mix only adds insult to injury. When European “cowboys” settled the Americas, they not only set out to appropriate Native lands but to decimate or neutralize the indigenous population. “Cowboys and Indians” parties make light of the atrocities committed in the name of manifest destiny. A January 2009 editorial written by college student Tefari Abel Casas Fuchs reveals how emotionally damaging “Cowboys and Indians” parties can be to Native American students.
In addition to these issues, the sexy Pocahontas costumes on the market for women are racially offensive as well. Not only do they sexualize Pocahontas, a young adolescent girl, but Native American women generally. All too often, the sexual relationships Native American women had with European settlers were exploitative or abusive, with Native women regarded as the derogatory term “squaw.”
Gypsy getups frequently make the rounds at Halloween functions. Like Native American costumes, however, these costumes typically paint Gypsies, more appropriately called Roma, in cartoonish terms.
“The romanticized image of the 'Gypsy' is alive and well in song lyrics, novels, costume parties, musical groups, and other forms of cultural imagery: 'They are exotic women in colorful skirts, dancing in sensual swirls… ' They dance by campfires, travel in caravans, tell fortunes with crystal balls or Tarot cards,” notes advocacy group Voice of Roma.
In addition to this, the Roma are stereotyped as being beggars, pickpockets, and con-artists. A case in point is that one can use the expressions “I got conned” and “I got gypped” interchangeably. Rather than counteract such stereotypes, Gypsy costumes promote them, ignoring the fact that the Roma have long been persecuted and continue to face virulent discrimination throughout Europe. During the Holocaust, approximately 1.5 million Roma were exterminated. In the present, Roma are denied their rights to housing, employment, healthcare, and education, according to Amnesty International. The agency also reports that Roma are often victims of forced evictions, racist attacks, and police brutality.
How stiff is bias against the Roma? When Madonna asked for Roma discrimination to stop during a concert in Bucharest in August 2009, the crowd reportedly jeered.
When choosing Halloween costumes with a racial bent, err on the side of caution. You'll be less likely to offend if you dress up as a specific person rather than an anonymous member of a racial group. In other words, consider going as Barack Obama for Halloween rather than a black guy, any black guy. And be sure to avoid changing your features in a way that's offensive. This means not wearing blackface to be President Obama or taping your eyes so that they slant if you're dressing up as Bruce Lee. Plenty of Obama masks are available in Halloween stores, and a black wig, fake scratches on the face and a martial arts outfit might be all you need to be Bruce Lee.