Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other


“Significantly, the goal of Halloween humor and play is often achieved at the expense of a target, for example, an individual or group that is mocked. While a costume may represent an ultimately aggressive judgment about its target, the joking nature of this practice makes acceptable the sharing of information, which in its unadulterated form might be considered unacceptable (Freud, 1960). Because both masquerader and his or her audience identify the humor as the principal feature of the costume, they are able to circumvent any judicious assessment of the negative images of the racial other being shared. It is for precisely these reasons that humor is such an effective tool in communicating racist thoughts, particularly in the contemporary post-Civil Rights era where open, frontstage expression of such ideas is considered socially taboo (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Dundes, 1987; Feagin, 2006; Picca & Feagin, forthcoming). Collectively, individuals’ behavior in the social setting is reinforced, encouraging both the continued reproduction of racially prejudiced ideas, as well as an uncritical appraisal of them.”

These and other posters like it can be found here. (https://www.ohio.edu/orgs/stars/Poster_Campaign.html)

“Halloween serves as a cultural space where the need to self-correct, or to be corrected is suspended, and the otherwise (at least publicly) abhorrent becomes tolerated, even celebrated. Indeed, as the student above asserts, Halloween is “great” because worries of offending are suspended on the holiday. Whether or not in fact true, many students, and in particular white students, believe it to be. This is evident in the numerous reports of cross-racial costuming and the invocation of degrading beliefs about people of color, often without any critical reflection – even when given the opportunity to do so through the journal writing exercise. As we discuss in depth later, students of color were much less likely to give cross-racial costuming a Halloween “pass,” as seen in several examples of firm objections to such “celebrating.” Among students who uncritically embrace cross-racial costuming, a belief in the “fun factor” of dressing across racial/ethnic lines emerges. Frequently, students who emphasize the fun of costumes translate that impression into an equation where humor “trumps” offensiveness – in other words, as long as a costume is perceived as funny, onlookers should take no offense, as this student’s recollection demonstrates:

Tonight I went to a costume party and the whitest kid I know was dressed up as a rapper. Baggy jeans, backwards hat, gold chain, whole deal. He did such a good job overplaying it that no one was offended, they just found it comical. It was hilarious to see him greet the black kids at the party. (white male)

Like other students, this individual understands the potentially offending nature of cross-racial costuming (although he does not explicitly say that his friend went as a “black” rapper, it becomes implicit in his racialized account); however, he assumes it will be negated as long as individuals “play up” the humor potential of the costume and convey the experience as merely a joke. The alleged hilarity of the “whitest kid” greeting the “black kids at the party”averts a potentially offensive situation according to the narrative. Seen through the eyes of this young white writer, the description of this interaction overemphasizes the social requirement of racial joking – that both sides appear to receive it as a joke. Conveniently, objections that may have been entertained by the “black kids,” or anyone else for that matter, are effectively erased with the conclusion that “no one was offended” because of the successful ways in which the costumer was able to so humorously appropriate notions of blackness and rap. Even without invoking the use of blackface makeup, this narrative highlights the ways in which racialized images are constructed in the white imagination, speaking to the various boundary negotiations that occur during the holiday. We are left with the easy sense that racial harmony is restored – injustice and offense are averted – all thanks to the cleverness of the “whitest kid” and his ability to make stereotyping comical. One must ask if this event was not so comical, would this respondent’s writing be any more critical?”

“While expressed antiracism was the exception and not the rule among white students, students of color were more universal in their critique of cross-racial costuming, as well as in their willingness to challenge others, particularly when they observed highly stereotypical portrayals. It is important to give voice to the frustration and hurt they expressed, as well.One Latina woman skeptically attended a “ghetto party” with a black friend. As she detailed:

When we arrived at the party we were shocked at what we saw. First, we did not see one black or Hispanic person. Blonde hair, blue-eyed kids were walking around with aluminum foil on their teeth, bandanas on their head, fur coats, big huge earrings, and shirts that said ‘Project Chick’ or ‘Ghetto Fabulous.’ …when I was younger my family was pretty poor and our living situation was very bad. We lived in what people refer to as the ‘ghetto,’ and it wasn’t fun and it sure wasn’t what those kids were portraying it to be. They were glamorizing it and at the same time almost making fun of it. My friend was insulted because this is how a lot of white people view black people and it is sad that this is true. (Hispanic/Latina female)


Harlem Globetrotters, 1969

“Another excerpt provides a similar example of confused antiracist critique, and extends the discussion of firm objections to cross-racial costuming further – however for different reasons altogether. Todd, a white student, described his group of friends’ consideration of cross-racially dressing as the Harlem Globetrotters:

My roommate suggested that we all be members from the Harlem Globetrotters basket-ball team. He said we would all wear big, black afro wigs, their jersey, and a boombox to carry around. All the guys on the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team are black though, but none of us really cared except for Chip. He said it was against his moral values to degrade himself and go as a black person for Halloween. We tried convincing him, but he would not listen to us. We asked him why it would be degrading and he gave us a bunch of crappy answers. I guess he was brought up by his parents to think that black people are no good and the only thing they are good for is slavery. It is amazing to me to hear that people still believe this way and are brought up like this. Anyway, we kept our idea of being Harlem Globetrotter basketball players and everybody loved our costumes. (white male)

Harlem Globetrotters, 2015

This excerpt is notable for several reasons. Foremost is the rigid rejection of cross-racial costuming by the writer’s friend, based on its offensiveness, ironically not because of its racist nature, but rather because it would be a moral degradation of himself as a white person.We must, however, draw attention to Todd’s clear rejection of his friend’s explicitly racist thinking, while he and his other friends entertain and actually carry out a costume based on racial stereotypes about African Americans. Aside from the Harlem Globetrotters jerseys, which would be clearly appropriate for these costumes, these young men decide that they should also wear “big, black afro wigs” and carry a “boombox,” neither of which are relevant to the Harlem Globetrotters, but are rather stereotypical conventions employed to convey the blackness of the players. Indeed, incorporating a “boombox” into a costume intended to portray basketball players is somewhat ludicrous, and marks this excerpt another clear example of the primary concern with playing up race as the dominant feature of cross-racial costumes. In reference to confused critique, it would appear that Todd can recognize the explicitly racist rearing of his friend, Chip, but is unable to recognize the racialized messages he has internalized in his own life.

Image result for the supremes
The Supremes

Aside from providing another example of the confused critique of some whites, the above example introduces the theme of firm objection to cross-racial costuming on the basis of white supremacy. Among other such firm objectors, one white female student detailed a conversation with her white friends about “three white girls dressed as the Supremes” at a Halloween party they had attended three days earlier. Their discussion involved how “wearing that crazy fro hair would have been so hot and uncomfortable,” chronicling the ways in which dressing the part of African American women would be subjectively unattractive, therefore unappealing. Like the quote above, we see that invoking the racial other is avoided not for antiracist reasons, but because it defiles these students’ notions of themselves as white, an identity that assumes favorable attributes. In this way, a significant paradox is revealed that whites who reject cross-racial costuming, as well as those who embrace it may both reflect racialized motives, whether cognizant of them or not.”

“While some, like Skal (2002), may reduce the holiday engagement of racial concepts to a matter of simple Halloween “fun,” this practice must be viewed within a greater framework. Seemingly playful and innocuous cultural practices, such as cross-racial costuming, should be considered within the sociohistorical and ideological context of the society, as a reflection of dominant group values and doctrines (Wilkinson, 1974). We must put aside the “fun” of costumes, which can distract from the subtle and not-so-subtle messages conveyed about people of color, and recognize that costumes provide a format for engaging commentary on personal and social values (McDowell, 1985). Indeed, to render people into character pieces, they must already exist as characters in one’s mind, and there are many social forces that drive our constructions of race and people of different racial groups toward such ends.”

“Indeed, as Johnson (1997) points out, the social reproduction of racism does not require people explicitly acting in racially hostile ways, but simply those who will uncritically acquiesce in the larger cultural order. While our data indeed reveal the explicit intentions of some students to degrade blackness through costume, the majority of white respondents actively suspended their criticisms or behaved in wholly uncritical ways. It is highly significant that regardless of intention, each of these response “types” share the outcome of reproducing stereotypical racist images, thereby supporting the racial social structure. Even among the minority of white students who journaled firm antiracist objections, few extended their internalized criticisms of cross-racial costuming to offer explicit challenges within their social groups, a social silence that, too, empowers the structure of racial dominance.”

A white person, the actor Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927), in blackface

With respect to race, we would argue that the holiday provides a context ripe for reinforcing existing racialist concepts. In particular, it provides an implicitly approved space for maintaining the privilege that whites have historically enjoyed, to define and caricature African Americans and other people of color in degraded and essentialist ways. At its worst, contemporary cross-racial costuming bores a track deep into history, intimately connecting itself to the ugly practice of American blackface minstrelsy. Ultimately, the white privilege to racially differentiate supports both material and ideological benefits and disadvantages built into the systemic racial structure. Int he United States this system has deep historical roots and is well-formulated and ingrained into the everyday rhythms of life. As such, Halloween social commentary which engages race can hardly be described as transient, and actually reflects the dominant racist ideology, coupling contemporary imaging with racist conceptualizations as old as the country itself.”

Mueller, Jennifer C., Danielle Dirks, and Leslie H. Picca. 2007. “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other.” Qualitative Sociology 30(3):315-335. [Pictures and bolding not in original. Below are the references reproduced in the order they appeared above.]

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relations to the unconscious. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Dundes, A. (1987). Cracking jokes: Studies of sick humor cycles and stereotypes. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Feagin, J. R. (2006). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.

Picca, L. H., & Feagin, J. R. (forthcoming, expected April 2007). Two-faced racism: Whites in the backstage and the frontstage. New York: Routledge.

Skal, D. J. (2002). Death makes a holiday: A cultural history of Halloween. New York: Bloomsbury.

Wilkinson, D. (1974). Racial socialization through children’s toys: A sociohistorical examinationJournal of Black Studies, 5, 96-109.

McDowell, J. (1985). Halloween costuming among young adults in Bloomington, Indiana: A local exotic. Indiana Folklore and Oral History14, 1-18.

Johnson, A. G. (1997). Power, privilege and difference. New York: McGraw Hill.

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