4 Easy Tips to Avoid Stupid and Offensive Halloween Costumes

October 17th 2015

Aron Macarow

Unsure if the costume that you planned for Halloween is offensive? Wesleyan University has your back this year. In an effort to get out ahead of the annual Halloween costume controversies, the college has published a checklist for students to determine if their costumes are problematic. It includes questions like, "Does this costume attempt to represent an entire culture or ethnicity?" and "Does this costume trivialize human suffering?"

 Is Your Costume Offensive? poster from Wesleyan University

But are these pointers really necessary? ATTN: surveyed costumes being marketed this year, and unfortunately, it turns out the answer is absolutely.

Does your costume appropriate cultural or religious symbols?

The first question that Wesleyan asks students to consider is whether their costume "mock[s] cultural or religious symbols such as dreadlocks, headdresses, afros [and] bindis." We don't have to consider Halloween to see that this is a regular occurrence. One word: Coachella.

Whether for a music festival or Halloween, this costume is never acceptable if you are not Native American. But why can't you wear it? If "because it's not your culture" isn't reason enough, consider that "playing Indian" stereotypes Native Americans, that there is a real history of genocide against native people in our country, and that headdresses and war bonnets have deep spiritual significance.


A photo posted by Cypress Friend (@leathertshirt) on

Also, writes Adrienne Keene at Native Appropriations, "[H]aving a drunken girl wearing a headdress and a bikini dancing at an outdoor concert does not honor me."

If it's not your culture or your religion, it's not for you. Pick another costume.

Does your costume attempt to represent an entire culture or ethnicity?

This should be simple, but year-after-year, Halloween merrymakers prove that it's anything but. Expanding on our first rule, another person's culture, race or ethnicity is not a costume. This especially includes any costume that requires you to change your skin color.

Trayvon Martin in blackface Halloween costume.

In a society that equates Whiteness with normalcy, everything that's not white becomes novel or funny, and therefore ripe for parody. So even though we somehow instinctively know to cringe when watching anyone prior to 1940 perform blackface, when it comes to Halloween, pretending to be non-white becomes an acceptable option. So this year when considering whether to do black, brown or yellow face—including the ever popular Geisha and Mexican costumes—just don't.

Does your costume mock someone's gender identity?

If all of those words—marginalize, suffer, oppress—don't trigger any red flags, I'm not sure that anyone can help you. But let's try.

Ask yourself whether your costume relies on harmful stereotypes or makes fun of gender identity. If so, the costume is out. This definitely means that anyone planning to be Caitlyn Jenner for Halloween needs to pick a new outfit. This also rules out other "funny" or "ironic" cross-dressing.

Why? Because someone's identity isn't a costume. Halloween outfits don't need to conform to your gender, but they shouldn't make fun of someone else's either. Whether Jenner herself has a problem with the costume or not, they send the message that trans people are pretending to be who they are. Similarly, when cisgender men wear traditionally feminine outfits in order to be funny on Halloween, it sends the message that there is something wrong with doing that after the holiday is over. This is bullying, and that's not cool.

Does your costume trivialize human suffering, marginalization, or oppression?

Other costumes that fall into dangerous territory: anything related to genocide (including all Nazi costumes), anything that make fun of illness, and any costume about a recent tragedy (like school shootings).

This year make sure your costume garners attention for the right reasons.

There are plenty of costume options that avoid sending a message that racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, sexism, or other forms of discrimination. So get creative, but don't do so at the expense of those who are different than you.