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“We’re A Culture, Not A Costume”

Is your Halloween costume this year offensive? Even racist? Some students from Ohio University are asking others to take a second look at their Halloween costume choices this fall. The statement “We’re A Culture, Not A Costume” is seen on posters developed by the student group. The students are trying to raise awareness about what they consider to be racially insensitive attire that many Americans don each October, and view as harmless. As you purchase groceries this month, you may walk by Halloween accessories with titles such as “Ghetto Fab Wig” or “Adult Beer Belly-White Trash” and continue walking without a second thought, just as others once did with signs stating “Whites Only Water Fountain.” In this piece, Mediha Din takes a look at campaigns against stereotypes found in major institutions of society- holidays, sports, and fashion.

My friend Julie hosts a Halloween party every year that the whole neighborhood looks forward to. It’s her favorite holiday, so she goes all out. Her house always looks like it’s decorated professionally, the food and drinks have spooky themes, and there are always prizes for the best costume. Last year the winner was a girl in a sexy cop costume. What helped her get votes wasn’t just the knee-high boots and short shorts though, it was extra touches of a different kind. She put on a pig nose mask, a pig tail, and had a small zip-loc bag of baby powder in her pocket. The corrupt cop stereotype was a hit.

As sociologists, we describe a stereotype as a preconceived, simplistic idea about the members of a group. These ideas can hinder social interactions and lead to false assumptions about others.

Many times stereotypes can also lead to prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Prejudice refers to attitudes (fear, anger, strong dislike, hatred). While, discrimination refers to actions (unequal treatment based on group membership). Racism includes discriminatory beliefs or actions based on race.

Img: Ohio STARS

You may dress up for Halloween in a costume titled “Hey Amigo” featuring a man wearing a sombrero and riding a donkey, or perhaps purchase an item from the Urban Outfitters “Navajo Collection” unaware that the Navajo Nation recently filed a lawsuit against the clothing retailer for using the Navajo name and motifs in their products. Or it could be that you spend every Sunday sporting your favorite NFL team’s jersey, with the name “Red Skins” across your chest. This is a title many Native American groups consider to be a racial slur, and have worked unsuccessfully to remove. Native American groups have had some success in requesting high school and college teams to avoid portraying their culture in ways deemed objectifying, demeaning, and stereotypical, but have been unable to persuade the Washington Redskins to consider a name a change. The team name has been in place for many years, and some believe it is embedded in the institution of professional sports.

When a discriminatory practice is bigger than individuals, it is known by sociologists as institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination includes any arrangements or practice within a social institution that tend to favor one group or result in unequal treatment or opportunities for minorities. The practice of redlining in real estate and tracking in schools are examples of institutional discrimination. It can be deliberate, or subtle, and even unintended.

Although it may seem harmless to dress up as a Geisha on Halloween, or unnecessary to change a team name that has been in place for years, many people felt the same way about racial insensitivity in America’s past. The once common theatrical use of make-up known as Black Face (where actors would smear makeup on their face to try and appear Black) was highly popular for 100 years, although now it is widely recognized as deeply offensive and racist.

The students from Ohio University’s, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) organization, are hoping that many of the Halloween costumes we see this fall will also soon be recognized as offensive and insensitive. The president of the organization, Sarah Williams, told CNN reporters “The best way to get rid of stereotypes and racism is to have a discussion and raise awareness, which is what we want to do with this campaign.” Jelani Cobb, a professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University agrees with their message and stated “The more we look at people as caricatures, the harder it is to operate as democracy.”

Dig Deeper:

  1. What do you think of people dressing up on Halloween as a stereotype of someone else’s culture? Is it racist? An homage? Harmless fun? Explain your thinking. If you think it’s an homage to another’s culture, what do you make of the fact that many of the people these costumes are trying to homage do not feel honored by the costumes?
  2. Walk through your local Halloween super store and analyze the costumes. How many costumes can you find that reflect racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes, or religious stereotypes?
  3. Think of the Halloween costume you are wearing this year or one you wore in the past. Describe it. How might a sociologist analyze the choice? Consider stereotypes based on gender, race, religion, or economic status.
  4. Think of two examples of stereotypes based on race, gender, or religion that are commonplace in major institutions of our society today and rarely questioned.