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Halloween Don’ts: Avoid Racially Offensive Costumes


    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.

Wrapping Up

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.
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