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Seriously, Just Don't Do These 6 Offensive Halloween Costumes

I’m cringing just thinking about these.

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Halloween is just around the corner, and it's time to pick out your costume. The COVID-19 pandemic made Halloween 2020 a mostly virtual affair, but depending on vaccination rates where you live, you might actually attend a costume party in person this year. If you decide to (safely) do so, what should you wear? There are so many creative options out there, from superheroes to political critiques to your favorite condiment. However, it's also important to be sensitive when you're trying to decide what to be for Halloween. To help you out, I've come up with a list of six offensive Halloween costumes to avoid. Seriously, just don't.

Even in recent years, numerous celebrities, political figures, and other prominent people have been embroiled in scandal because of racist or offensive costumes they donned in the past. In March 2021, the University of Alabama placed three professors on paid leave after photos surfaced of them attending an on-campus party in 2014 while wearing racist costumes. In the photos, one of the professors was dressed as a Confederate soldier, while the other two posed with a whip and a noose. After the photos came to light, the university’s president denounced the professors’ actions, per The New York Times, and two of the professors issued public apologies for their costume choices.

The professors may have apologized once they were caught, but done respectfully, your Halloween costume shouldn’t be something you end up having to apologize for. Racism is not a costume, and neither are other cultures, tragic events, or systems of oppression. When you're picking out your Halloween costume for 2021, last-minute or otherwise, here are some things you should make sure to avoid.

Coronavirus Or A COVID-19 Patient

You might be looking for humor in the tragedy of the last two years, but a virus that has killed more than 4.5 million people around the world is not good fodder for a Halloween costume. Dressing up as the virus itself, or as a COVID patient, makes light of the suffering and loss millions of families have experienced since the start of the pandemic. Even the costume maker Yandy, which famously makes sexy — and often controversial — costumes, steered clear of any COVID-related costumes in 2020. In 2021, the only tangentially COVID-related costume you’ll find on Yandy’s website is a hand sanitizer costume. If you instead want to honor the people who have been fighting this virus from the beginning, you can’t go wrong by donning a generic nurse or doctor costume.

Blackface Of Any Kind

It's sad I still need to say this in 2021, but blackface — dark makeup typically worn by non-Black people, often to caricature a Black role or stereotype — is unacceptable in any situation, and Halloween is no exception. Every year, many new blackface scandals come to light, even from prominent people who would be expected to know better. In 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam were both criticized for having previously worn blackface and brownface — Trudeau had worn brownface makeup and a turban to an Arabian Nights-themed party at the private school where he was teaching in 2001, while Northam had posed for a 1984 yearbook photo in which one person wore blackface and the other wore a white Ku Klux Klan robe (it was unclear which person in the photo was Northam). Both men publicly apologized for the incidents.

Blackface has a long, racist history: In the United States, blackface became a popular fixture of minstrel shows in the 1800s. As Jenée Desmond-Harris pointed out in an October 2014 Vox story, white actors donned blackface on stage during these shows to play enslaved people or free Black people as mocking caricatures based in harmful and dehumanizing stereotypes.

Blackface is never necessary to be "true" to a costume, either. If you really love a character that happens to be of a different ethnic background as you, it's totally OK to dress as them — no face paint necessary. Trust me, Princess Tiana's gorgeous green dress, gloves, and tiara will be recognizable without any blackface.

Cultural Stereotypes & Traditional Clothing

Cultures are not costumes, and that applies across the board. Were you thinking about wearing a sombrero, sari, or kimono this Halloween? It's probably best to avoid these and other pieces of cultural clothing, especially because many such clothes and accessories have cultural and religious significance of which you might not be aware.

Cultural appropriation isn't just a buzzword. In 2017, Jessica Andrews pointed out in Teen Vogue that cultural appropriation is "the manifestation of one of the earliest, most enduring racist ideals: the belief that people who belong to marginalized cultures are somehow less than human." When a non-Black person wears an afro wig, for example, or when a non-Muslim person dons a hijab, they are exoticizing an element of a different culture without incurring any of the racism, discrimination, or stigma Black or Muslim people usually face for doing the same thing.

You should also skip any costumes that attempt to sexualize another culture. If you've had your eyes on a "sexy geisha" or a "sexy Indian princess" costume, think again — costumes like these objectify other cultures in a way that reduces people to accessories, and that's not OK.

Costumes Of Native American & Indigenous People
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Whenever Halloween rolls around, many people inevitably decide to dress up as Pocahontas or a "Native American princess." Take Hilary Duff and Jason Walsh, for example. In 2016, the pair dressed up as Native American and pilgrim stereotypes — at the same time Native American activists were protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. Duff apologized on Twitter following the backlash, while Walsh took to Instagram to say he "meant no disrespect" with the costume and apologized for having worn it.

As Valerie Reynoso pointed out in a 2018 op-ed for Teen Vogue, Native American and indigenous populations in North America have faced brutal forms of oppression, from colonialism to genocide. Violence and oppression against indigenous communities isn't a thing of the past, either. Even as of 2019, thousands of Native women go missing every year, per Pacific Standard — disappearances which are often inadequately investigated and left unsolved.

Instead of picking up a Pocahontas costume this Halloween, Reynoso suggests investing in Native designers to make a real difference. If you really, really must do an Old West-themed costume, there's always the option of being a cowboy (many of whom, by the way, were Black). Just remember — no blackface.

Victims Of Oppression & Tragic Events

We all get it — it’s been a tragic year, and we have to find things to laugh about. However, you should avoid making light of oppression and tragedy when you’re picking out your Halloween costume. For example, please don’t dress up as a Holocaust victim. In August 2020, TikTok users dressed up as “Holocaust victims in heaven” as part of a troubling trend, per Insider, going so far as to don makeup imitating bruises and burns. Diane Saltzman, the director of survivor affairs at the US Holocaust Museum, told Insider at the time that the trend “dishonors the memory of the victims, is offensive to survivors, and trivializes the history.” For similar reasons, you should also avoid dressing up as a mass shooting victim, an immigrant detained at the border, a victim of domestic violence, or a Black person who was killed by police.

For people who have been oppressed, attacked, or even killed for their race, gender, or religious beliefs, Halloween costumes like these commodify and mock their traumatic experiences. And for people who are the victims of tragedy, costumes making light of tragic events can be triggering, offensive, and decidedly unfunny. So as you’re thinking about what to be for Halloween, consider whether your potential costume “punches down” — that is, whether it mocks or makes light of a person or group that has historically been persecuted, marginalized, or victimized in some way. If it does, you should find a different costume.

Body-Shaming Costumes

This is a pretty broad category, but any costumes that objectify, body-shame, or mock people should be avoided. Making light of someone's weight by wearing a fat suit is the antithesis of body positivity, as is reducing someone to a sex object by wearing a caricatured, “sexy” costume of their appearance. You should also stay away from any Halloween getups that mock gender nonconforming or trans people, or reduce their experiences to a costume. If you really must wear some form of inflatable costume, try a T-rex instead of any kind of fat suit. A T-rex is never inappropriate.

There are so many fictional characters, political themes, and spooky concepts out there that would make great Halloween costumes. All you have to remember is this — it doesn't cost you too much effort to wear a creative, sensitive Halloween costume, and it's worth going the extra mile to avoid invoking trauma or stereotypes. After all, wouldn’t you rather be remembered for how clever your costume is, instead of how cringeworthy?

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