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Is Your College Student's Halloween Costume Offensive?

Marybeth Bock, MPH

Every year when fall rolls around there are cultural givens that we have come to expect — an overabundance of pumpkin-spice products, sweaters and flannel shirts in ads and store windows and, unfortunately, stories of offensive and racist Halloween costumes seen at college parties around the country.

But it’s 2021, we may think. We are getting better in America at recognizing and talking about racial inequality, even if it's more clear than ever, almost two years into the pandemic and more than a year after the racial injustice protests of summer '20, that we still have a long way to go to address this multifaceted social and economic issue.

Have our discussions with family and friends helped us evolve in our ways of thinking and will they lead to this finally being the year that our news feeds will be free of college students dressed up in offensive costumes?

My guess is no, given what we've seen on and around so many campuses the past few months as students arrived back at school and have plunged merrily back into large, unregulated social gatherings. In addition, colleges have been issuing warnings to students about offensive costumes for years, and that hasn't eradicated the behavior.

For example, in 2016 the University of Florida sent a message to their student body before Halloween stating:

Think about your choices of costumes and themes. Some Halloween costumes reinforce stereotypes of particular races, genders, cultures, or religions. Regardless of intent, these costumes can perpetuate negative stereotypes, causing harm and offense to groups of people. Also, keep in mind that social media posts can have a long-term impact on your personal and professional reputation.

Messages like this have been mocked in the past and caused outcry from free speech advocates. Is public shaming of college students wearing insensitive costumes a necessary tool for educating young adults or an example of “cancel culture” that some think has gone too far? Is their lack of sensitivity just another “college kids will behave like college kids” justification that many are willing to accept because the behavior isn’t physically harming anyone?

As the mother of two college-aged young adults, I believe parents do have an obligation — and also an opportunity. The costume topic is a chance to talk to our kids about how these choices both affect their own integrity and also signal how they value other people.

Differentiating Between Funny and Offensive

When it comes to questionable Halloween costumes, it's important for our students to understand that a lack of intent to offend is beside the point.

What they may view as funny, or even as appreciation for a certain culture or group of people, can easily be hurtful for someone with a different lived experience or point of view.

And while some students may feel that none of the friends they're socializing with at Halloween would take offense to their costume, they need to think about the broader community to which they belong, and about how easy it is for a photo or video to go viral and to negatively affect people who are not physically near them.

They might also ask themselves, "If I think this costume is okay for my inner circle but I wouldn't want it to be seen by anyone else what does that say about my choice?"

Finally, it may be helpful to tactfully remind our emerging adults that their brains are still maturing and their ability to feel robust empathy is still evolving. It’s more challenging for some than others to put themselves in another person’s position or truly grasp emotions that feel irrelevant to them.

Where to Draw the Line

Before Halloween gatherings begin this year, chat with your college student. Even if parties are smaller, students will dress up and take selfies galore.

Broach the subject of costumes, and ask them about what they think is harmless and what might be inappropriate to wear. Here are just some examples to point out as offensive choices:

1. Blackface

The history of blackface in America is rooted in racism. It is never acceptable for someone to paint themselves a different skin color, nor is it reasonable to wear an outfit that reinforces any racial stereotype.

Even if a student thinks they're paying homage to someone they admire, it’s simply wrong. There are plenty of recent examples in the news of public figures experiencing serious repercussions from old photos if you need fodder for this conversation.

2. Cultural stereotypes

These are commonly seen at college parties and at adult gatherings as well. We should all avoid dressing up as a generalization of someone else’s culture.

Forgo the Native American headdress, kimono, grass skirt and coconut shell top, or poncho with mustache look. Bottom line: If the costume would not sit well as a sports mascot, it should not be worn.

3. Mental illness stereotypes

If a costume trivializes any part of the experience of mental illness, like a straitjacket or medications, it’s not appropriate and should be avoided.

4. Anything related to religion or extremism

Versions of priests, nuns, pastors or rabbis fall into this category. Costumes depicting religious leaders, beliefs or extremism can easily offend people. And it seems like it should go without saying that no one should dress up as a Nazi, terrorist or jihadist.

5. Sexual exploitation or body objectification

Costumes that ridicule or exaggerate a certain body part or body shape and costumes that mock LGBTQ+ identities are a form of sexual harassment.

6. Depictions of mass tragedy, including COVID-19

While coronavirus costumes will certainly be available this year, one should think twice before choosing to dress up and be a reminder of something that's killed more than 700,000 Americans, similar to offensive costumes depicting a mass shooting, bombing or even a persistent problem like homelessness.

Dr. Akilah Cadet, CEO of Change Cadet, which provides individuals and companies with services that support anti-racism, diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging, offers these reminders for college students on Halloween:

  1. If you have to ask yourself if your costume is offensive, it is. I cannot stress this enough. If you feel your costume is not offensive and it is to someone, apologize, remove the costume, and learn from your mistake.
  2. Racism, it is very real in our country. Don't add to it because you want to be LeBron James or Princess Jasmine. There are plenty of costumes that are not centered around racism.

If Your Student Isn't Sure About Their Costume

Suggest they err on the side of respect and empathy. That's simple enough, and then they can use their imagination and creativity to come up with any number of fun costume options.

Photos courtesy of the author.

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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