Cultural Stereotypes in Costumes: Offensive or Funny?

  • August 20, 2012
  • Jenna Maxwell

It seems that these days anything goes when it comes to dressing up for Halloween.  Some folks seem to think that some costumes may have crossed the proverbial line, however, and perhaps have gone too far.  If you’ve been thinking of dressing up as something along the lines of a Mexican Bandito, a Geisha Girl, a Ghetto God, a Redneck or even an Illegal Alien, you may want to take into consideration a few points.

Last year, a group of students at Ohio University, vehemently protested the use of these types of costumes, calling them offensive and proclaiming “we are a culture, not a costume!”  Their point was well taken as these students set out to raise awareness about what they viewed as obvious racism.

Most people who dress up in these stereotypical costumes are probably largely unaware of how they might be construed by people who may be culturally associated with these types of costume looks.  At Halloween time, these costume styles are in relative abundance and have historically been a favorite amongst costume wearers.  The Geisha Girl, for example, has been a popular Halloween costume for female wearers.  This look, however, is a stereotype that Asian women don’t always appreciate and have been trying for years to overcome, as the Geisha has long been associated with high priced prostitution.

Some other costume choices are more obvious when it comes to their degree of offensiveness.  Looks depicting “Rednecks” that include disgusting features in them such as large beer bellies, dirty clothing and rotting teeth may be considered very politically incorrect, along with other more obvious offenders such as wearing anything that may be making light of the attire or wardrobe associated with the Muslim, Native American, Italian or African-American cultures, along with many others. 

Of course, there are still many folks out there that think a whole lot of hullaballoo is being made out of nothing.  Halloween has been, essentially, a holiday that is celebrated in the spirit of fun.  Arguably, some say that no one seems to be worried about the various undead creatures lurking about everywhere on Halloween night, nor do they seem terribly upset by the sexy girl from your office posing as a naughty version of a nurse that is set to cure what ails you.  Halloween is supposed to just be light-hearted fun, right?  Are some folks just taking this costume thing too seriously?

No matter what side of the fence you fall on, a little sensitivity is always prudent, so consider who your friends are and where you are going before you make your Halloween costume plans, always erring on the side of good judgment.  Jelani Cobb, a professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University noted, “What underlies this kind of costuming is the belief that these people aren’t quite as equal to what we are, or aren’t as American as we are, or that you as a person who’s not a member of that group should be able to dictate how painful the stereotype should be.” 

It’s definitely something to think about.  Perhaps it’s just much safer to be Batman.