When Halloween Costumes Become Offensive

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Halloween is just around the corner. And while some look forward to the trick or treating and costume parties, others approach the day with the expectation of being offended by someone wearing a culturally insensitive costume. Guest host Jennifer Ludden speaks with Carmen Van Kerckhove, who blogs about race, parenting and pop culture. Kerckhove explains why good intentions don't always translate into good perceptions.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

And now, as if candy compositing isn't enough to keep in mind, here's something else to consider this Halloween. It's never fun when your creative and witty costume falls flat or just gets you shrugs from the partygoers, but what happens when your outfit isn't just not funny but is perceived by some as downright racist or sexist?

Joining us to talk about this is Carmen Van Kerckhove. She publishes the blog Love Isn't Enough about race and parenting and the blog Racialicious about race and pop culture.

Hi there, Carmen. Welcome to TELL ME MORE.

Ms. CARMEN VAN KERCKHOVE (Publisher, Love Isn't Enough and Racialicious blogs): Hi. Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: Let's start with a recent post on Racialicious. Your blog editor Latoya Peterson wrote this: Halloween is an exhausting time for us wee anti-racist critics. When everyone else gets to dress up and have a good time, we wind up at home either sifting through online images of people dressed up as racists and growing more bitter and gnarled by the minute.

That's a depressing picture. Can you explain how it is that a night that's supposed to be fun can really cause such anxiety for some?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Well, if you think about it, you know, Halloween costumes are often based on the things that we as a society either have anxiety about, we see as taboo or abnormal. So there's a reason that not a lot of people dress up as, for example, a middle-class white man who's an insurance manager and has two kids and a dog. That's not an interesting costume because it's quote-unquote, "normal." And so a lot of the costumes out there will deal with sex, with violence, with death. And then also, you see a lot of costumes that show sort of marginalized identities. You know, people of color, different cultures and...

LUDDEN: Give me a list. Give me some examples of someone. You open the door and there's a kid in, what, it's going to make you feel weird.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Oh boy. Stereotypical Mexican with a big poncho and a big mustache, a geisha, and then any number of sexy blank ethnicity, so sexy harem girl, sexy Native American, sexy, you know, as one of our bloggers last said sexy Shaolin monk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Any of those are going to definitely raise an eyebrow for me.

LUDDEN: But now is a lot of this, you know, is it racism or is this just simple ignorance - people don't get it?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Well, I think this is something that, you know, a lot of people just haven't thought about. And you know, quite frankly, I myself not too many years ago, dressed up as a Native American, you know, just because I had a fringy suede vest and a fake suede skirt, and I thought that would be, you know, an easy and cheap costume to do. So a lot of people just haven't thought about this. But I think once you think about how, you know, the kind of implications that this has, and I think it's important to, you know, change your behavior. You know, one of the bloggers that we linked to on Racialicious wrote for example: When did it become okay to reduce a diversity language culture of nearly 500 different indigenous tribes into a tacky costume as cheap suede colored feathers, plastic beads and fringe? So I think one element is that it's kind of insulting if you're from a culture...

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: ...to see that very complex culture boiled down into this caricature.

LUDDEN: Well, you know, we put out a call for comments on our Facebook page and Brigity Brent(ph) wrote back, do blacks have a monopoly on pimps, prostitutes, rappers, inmates or maids? I think some people definitely overreact to Halloween costumes. Is it overreaction?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: It depends on your perspective. You know, I think that one of the problems with dressing up as someone from a different background is that you get to sort of live as them for a day, walk in their shoes for a day but with none of the institutional oppression that they have to face.

So, for example, you can go as a so-called gangster from the hood with baggy jeans and, you know, whatever else are the accoutrements of that particular costume, but you don't have to be racially profiled by the police. You know, you can go as a harem girl or an Arab sheik and you don't have to be racially profiled at the airport. And so, it's really a way of getting to dress up but, you know, you deal with everything but the burden.

LUDDEN: You know, one of your bloggers wrote in about how when she was a little girl she was so excited because her mother dressed her up in a beautiful Native costume from her home country, Trinidad, and she got to wear makeup. And she arrived at school so proud and excited and then all the kids thought she was Aunt Jemima from the maple syrup bottle or the little slave girl in the movie "Roots" and she was crushed. Do you have advice for parents?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Well, I would say that that example shows how much we are really affected by the stereotypes that we take in, so that even if we see a costume, we immediately categorize it into something that we're familiar with -you know, the Aunt Jemima, the slave girl. And so, I would say to parents, you know, it's not about being - staying away from race altogether. I mean, you know, I'll give you a few examples of costume ideas that I thought were great that played with race but didn't necessarily go into being offensive.

LUDDEN: Okay.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: One blogger that I know, who's a Chinese-American guy, and he has daughter, and she was about I think four or five years old, and last year he dressed her up as an underage Chinese gymnast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: So he put a fake birth certificate on her back saying that -claiming she was 16...

LUDDEN: Oh right.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: ...and that was funny, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: Well, I think we're going to have to leave it there. Carmen Van Kerckhove is the publisher of Love Isn't Enough, a blog about race and parenting and Racialicious, a blog about race and pop culture. She joined us from NPR in New York.

Thanks so much.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: That's our program. I'm Jennifer Ludden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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