Is My Halloween Costume Offensive?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween costumes (Devar/flickr)

Every Halloween, there are conversations about what's an appropriate costume, and what's insensitive. Historical (but despicable) figures like Genghis Khan? Racial stereotypes like a Geisha? Sexy [anything]? Blackface? (Okay, that one's easy: It's not okay!) Jeff Yang, contributor to the WSJ's Speakeasy blog and editor of Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology; Kendra Pettis, television correspondent for; and Cord Jefferson, west coast editor of Gawker, take listeners calls on whether their Halloween costume is offensive and discuss what our Halloween practices say about our culture today.


Cord Jefferson, Kendra Pettis and Jeff Yang

Comments [59]

Mike from The Bronx

As a white man living in The Bronx, I have been verbally abused with racist epithets and physically threatened based on my skin color. Likewise, my girlfriend has experienced both racial and sexist abuse. But according to the enlightened Kendra Pettis, these attacks weren't racist since you can't be racist against whities. I guess we deserve it because we are mother f***in crackas.

Oct. 31 2013 06:26 PM
Adrienne from UWS

This is really pathetic, my mother remembers Jewish kids being beat up on Halloween, and being called Ch--st Ki-ller, It was a really dangerous time for certain kids, back in the day,(girls too) so this is what we are worried about? really? Brian, is every little thing racist to you? I think this is a form of pandering, you should really re-think this attitude. I think some of the intensity of calling people a racist has a silencing effect, Like calling a person a heretic in the Middle ages.

That said, I am going as Zombie Kim Kardashian. : )A

Oct. 31 2013 04:03 PM

I remember years ago (1997) a man in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade dressed as the Prom Mom, the NJ teen who gave birth at her prom. He wore a prom dress & had a doll dragging behind him from a fake umbilical cord. That offended some people; others thought it was funny. There were Zombie Princess Dianas & Mother Teresas as well that were similarly greeted.

This year I think some would find Zombie Lou Reed appropriate, some would think it was in bad taste. I think everyone would find going as Avonte Oquendo offensive.

Oct. 31 2013 03:30 PM

To the person who mentioned zero tolerance for racism - how about killing your son because he was diagnosed with epilepsy? Hate crime against the disabled or poor mom was clinically depressed because her son had the "scourge" of epilepsy? Courts thought the latter, she was out in a few years from the psych ward, cured of her hatred of those with a disability apparently (Jack Kimzey case).

But no, we are arguing about feeling offended because someone wears a costume to a party.

Oct. 31 2013 12:47 PM
randh from nyc

Your panelists pretty much sum up that each person has their own individual tastes and thoughts. I was completely floored that one panelist said that "anyone in the majority cannot be a victim of racism". What do you call it if a white person is treated poorly by blacks because of their race? Some other word?

I am a brown-skinned "white person". I am female. I can discriminate against men, that's okay? I am brown-skinned, so I can discriminate against my much whiter son? How about this - my brown-skinned son can pick where we go out to eat every time, because my white-skinned son can be discriminated against because of his skin color and that's okay. My white-skinned son needs to take out the trash because when he gets into the working world, he'll have benefits my brown-skinned son won't?

*I* am really offended by what she said. Let's just trash the whole idea of wearing costumes at all. I do agree that Ms. Hough should have just worn the costume with no face make-up, but your female panelist seemed to think that it would be wrong in every way.

We are all African and we are all human beings. And we all are a product of our families and microcultures within the communities we grew up in. I hope some day she will realize that, and stop being prejudiced and racist against whites.

Oct. 31 2013 12:34 PM
Nick from UWS

Going to a Halloween party as "Crazy Eyes" from Orange Is The New Black, and NOT darkening your skin is WAY more offensive, as it erases and discounts her black identity.

Oct. 31 2013 12:16 PM
Daniel from NYC

Kendra's definition of racism is flat-out wrong. Of course it's possible to make racist comments against a majority group or group with power. If someone says a random Asian student is probably too busy to have fun because she's studying math and science, that would be an offensive, RACIST comment, since the comment is only based on the student's race. There are also racist terms and stereotypes for white people. In the end, all racism is hurtful.

Of course the psychology and dynamics of racial profiling and race-based prejudice are different among different groups, but claiming only some groups can experience racism only serves to compromise the overall quest to end discrimination and prejudice.

Oct. 31 2013 12:11 PM
Daniela from NYC

So much overthinking and overinterpreting... A lot of the extremeness here comes from the ability people have to become offended... I agree some costumes can be offensive but I think that's a lot more about your attitude while in costume or to how you decided to depict the character than whether you decided to give your skin a different color or get your eyes to look different. Dressing up as a certain character and trying to make it look as real as possible doesn't mean you are being disrespectful towards what that character represents. I don't see anyone discussing how offensive it is for nurses to see people dressed up as a nurse...

Oct. 31 2013 12:10 PM

To me Halloween is about the supernatural but people use it to make fun of /celebrate different ethnicities ,groups, whatever. Therefore if it is acceptable to make fun of/celebrate one ethnic group then it is acceptable to celebrate/make fun of any group. When elites say only traditionally disparaged groups cannot be portrayed stereotypically then they are imposing their sensibilities, prejudices, likes and dislikes on everyone else.They're simply saying they don't want this or that group stereotypically portrayed but don't mind another group stereotypically portrayed. All groups can and have been disparaged. What is a historically disparaged group can be perceived by others as a dominant group today. It is subjective to say this or that group is a disparaged group. One person's disparaged group is another's protected group.What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Oct. 31 2013 12:08 PM

long time listener, first time commenter:

I think your panel members were uptight behavioral fascists with no sense of fun or the freedom that Halloween provides a stage for. (I normally only get this upset when you allow right winger guests to spread their bs around). Being offended CAN be a very good thing and healthy for a society like ours.

Oct. 31 2013 12:07 PM

@Kay: I agree. I would say that racism is an irrational, unfounded, fear or hatred that is taught and learned. Predjudice is assuming something is present based on prejudgement before any evidence is presented. This, to me, is not irrational, or unfounded though it can be inaccurate or unfair.

Oct. 31 2013 12:03 PM
amy from New York City

I listened to this segment with sadness and amusement. Some of us have family members with disabilities such as autism. Some people would love to be able to go to a Halloween party - dressed as anything! - but can't handle the social interactions. It's like a person whose face is pressed to the glass, outside a nice restaurant where everyone inside is having fun. Consider yourself fortunate if your biggest problem is the kind of costume your child is wearing!!

Oct. 31 2013 12:02 PM
The Truth from Becky

You might be a redneck/racist IF....your halloween costume degrades another Race, Culture or Creed.

Oct. 31 2013 12:02 PM
Eli from East Village

When I was in grad school at Berkeley a (naive) friend of mine threw a "Cowboys and Indians" party. Leading up to the party she was disappointed that no one was planning on dressing as an "Indian" (ie Native American -- people were planning to dress as a Cleveland Indian, etc.). I explained how that party theme in particular might be a bit touchy, in Berkeley especially. Her response was to send out a revised invite calling the party a "Cowboys and Native Americans" party (!!!!!).

Oct. 31 2013 12:00 PM
Amy from Manhattan'

I'd like to have that "other conversation" about whether prejudice against white people (in white-dominated societies) can be called racism. I think in some contexts it can. Like many -ism words, it can describe a societal system or a personal belief.

Oct. 31 2013 12:00 PM

Kendra's right: everyone knows that only white people are racist and everyone else is the victim of white ignorance and hatred.

Oct. 31 2013 11:58 AM

I can't believe that WNYC would have a person on their panel that says you can be racist against white people! WTF?! That is simply racist.

Oct. 31 2013 11:58 AM

This panel is way too PC.

Oct. 31 2013 11:58 AM

The caller should just dress his kid in a hoodie and sunglasses - instant Unabomber!

Oct. 31 2013 11:58 AM
Nick from UWS

Let's pretend that all human beings look and dress precisely the same. Let's avoid truth. That's what you guys are saying. What complete idiocy. The minds of Apple iRobots.

Oct. 31 2013 11:58 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I would think there would be a difference between dressing in a costume that lampoons a figure as opposed to one that is historically accurate.

Oct. 31 2013 11:58 AM
The Truth from Becky

If you have to have this explained to you you're and idiot!

Oct. 31 2013 11:58 AM
Mark Reigelman from Brooklyn

These guests must be such a bore to go to a Halloween Party with! Dress as whatever and have fun!

Oct. 31 2013 11:57 AM
kay from manhattan

i think the academic argument that it's not possible to be racist to white people needs to be put aside... while it's true, by the academic denotation of the word, in practice, people use the word "racist" to connote anything that is disparaging or harmful or unfair and based on race.

that CONNOTATION can apply to anyone.

if we can't call out as "racist" any negative treatment or attitudes against white people based on their whiteness, then let's use another word.

prejudiced, perhaps?

Oct. 31 2013 11:57 AM
Cathy from Queens

So saris and kimonos are out and offensive. But if one wore leiderhosen or any other native European folk costume that would be fine,right? Doesn't seem fair.

Oct. 31 2013 11:57 AM
Dan from Rahway, nj

Oh for christ's sakes... Frito bandito??!! Offensive?? This is so ridiculous!!

Be what you want to be..

Brooklyn speakeasy hipster wannabe passive aggresive fascists!!!

Is that an offensive costume?

Oct. 31 2013 11:57 AM
genejoke from Brooklyn

Get over yourselves. If you get offended by someone's ridiculous, meant-to-provoke Halloween costume, you're an idiot.

Oct. 31 2013 11:56 AM
john from office

I am going as a negro to my party, black face, big lips and all!. It is art and art is protected by WNYC. Think of it as racial Graffiti, I am Banksy!

Oct. 31 2013 11:56 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Can we dress up as Martians??

Oct. 31 2013 11:55 AM
Nora from not Brooklyn

How about if a white, Jewish woman dresses as a Hassidic man?

Oct. 31 2013 11:53 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn, NY

Oh lord, this panel is overbearing.

Oct. 31 2013 11:53 AM
The Truth from Becly

@Inquisigal - and how exactly do you show "intention" "admiration" in the costume with the blackface? Explain please.

Oct. 31 2013 11:52 AM
Nick from UWS

A costume is a costume - you're dressing to look like another person of your choice, including the color of their skin if applicable. What the hell exactly is the problem with this? Are you saying that all people actually look precisely the same? Is that what you guys are saying?

Oct. 31 2013 11:52 AM
ivan obregon from nyc

Carnival is meant to be a masquerade of.....demasking boundaries so white face/black face and any and all other poor taste in all, the point is to "dis-figure" society's social and class facades of "decency", "appropriateness" and most of all, "order" and "hierarchy". Even Mikhail Bakhtin wasn't just a literary theorist when it was time to be....anyone else he wanted to be....for "a time".

PC hysteria.....and bourgeois prudery.

Oct. 31 2013 11:51 AM
Amy from Manhattan

The real question is, which race is the caller's child's zombie Jesus?

Oct. 31 2013 11:51 AM
GG from Manhattan

Jesus is a zombie he rose from the dead!

Oct. 31 2013 11:50 AM
oscar from ny

I love when I see young girls wear hoochy sxy about offensive..

Oct. 31 2013 11:50 AM
Rachel from Riverdale

What if you called the white girl costume "white trash" instead and had hair sprayed hair, acid wash Jeans and/or unfashionable sweatpants, tattoos, Harley Davidson gear etc along with the Starbucks coffee cups? Is saying white trash racist?

Oct. 31 2013 11:50 AM

Is it making fun of "whoever" not ok?

Oct. 31 2013 11:49 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn, NY

I have to wonder - if a light-skinner person admires someone with darker skin, and wants to dress up as that person for Halloween - and chooses to use make-up to darken their skin, how is this racist? There's a big difference between a minstrel blackface and using make-up to embody a character.
PC seems to be on overdrive here....

Oct. 31 2013 11:49 AM
Dan from Rahway

What about gay costumes?? Are they offensive?

Oct. 31 2013 11:49 AM
Moss DiFalco from Westchester

Was this kind ire raised over Robert Downey jr's character in the 2008 movie Tropic Thunder?

Oct. 31 2013 11:49 AM
Susan from North Salem, NY

Everyone is over-thinking Halloween. Chill out, dress up, and stop looking for conflict where it doesn't exist. There is this weird need to create a totally sterile, offense-free society. It's not going to happen.

Oct. 31 2013 11:48 AM
Greg Zuccolo from Brooklyn

What if a Jewish woman dressed up as a sexy Hitler and called herself Titler?

Oct. 31 2013 11:48 AM
The Truth from Becky

If you have to have this explained to you you're an idiot!

Oct. 31 2013 11:46 AM
Alan from New York

I'm planning to disguise myself as a Microsoft .NET version 4.5 programmer. I'm really a .NET version 4.0 programmer. Would my disguise be considered offensive?

Oct. 31 2013 11:46 AM

Many years ago I went to a Halloween party with an African-American woman who was dressed in a Ku Kluz Klan robe and hood. She got the prize for best costume.

Oct. 31 2013 11:45 AM
Miscellaneous from Brooklyn

Is dressing as Magilla Gorilla offensive to primates?

Is dressing as Top Cat offensive to felines?

Is dressing as a book offensive to libraries?

Is dressing as an Oreo offensive to pastries?

Oct. 31 2013 11:45 AM
Nick from UWS

What is the answer? The answer is to end all the fascistic PC bs, and start having a sense of humor.

Oct. 31 2013 11:44 AM

"Dressing up as a "typical" Indian/Mexican/Asian/"Ghetto person" is racist, and it should be treated as such -- zero tolerance."

So is dressing up as a poor person ok if you are white ...or poor? Remembering "hobos" a common halloween costume from my past.

Oct. 31 2013 11:43 AM
viking kaj

I sincerely hope that everyone's Halloween costume this evening will be at least slightly offensive.

Whatever happened to the "Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave"? Or it this just a line in a song now?

Freedom of Speech includes the freedom to express opinions via dress.

I think we should all go to the Village parade and enjoy!!!

Oct. 31 2013 10:59 AM
Deborah Harkins from New York, New York

Today's post on Women's Voices for Change,, features a psychologist's answer to a mother who laments that her daughters want to wear "slutty" costumes. Where to draw the line?

Oct. 31 2013 10:56 AM
Meghan from Long Island

My 4 year old is going as a bride this Halloween. My husband and I recently celebrated our anniversary and she has been asking all about weddings, brides, grooms and we have been talking to her about how in New York State anyone can get married now. She has put her own spin on being a bride-she has a pink veil, multicolor bouquet and a rainbow fan. One parent asked me how I could let my daughter go as a bride with the reality of child brides in the world. I actually hadn't thought about that because my daughter was having so much fun creating her costume and coming up with stories about being a bride and I thought she was celebrating the positive aspects of marriage. Plus she is 4 years old and this is what she wants to be! I didn't really have a good answer for the other parent at the time except for "She's being a LGBT bride. Everyone can get married now." On a side note in her preschool class today, there were three other girls dressed as brides.

Oct. 31 2013 10:45 AM
Cord Jefferson's Last Kidney from Saudi Arabia

@ Mr. Bad

Cord is so PC he's got "brown guilt"... take it from me, I'm working my Major Calyx off down here so his Dad can pound Pabst on Sunday mornings!

Oct. 31 2013 10:40 AM
Steve from upper west side

I would like to go out as the ACA -- Obamacare. I'll bandage up my entire body, make sure much of it is bloodied by the Republicans and the botched rollout, go out on crutches, and put doctors bills and ACA website notices telling me I can't access the website attached to me all over. I'm sure this will be offensive to many, and scary for all!!!

Oct. 31 2013 10:39 AM

About 25 years ago I was a Rastafarian for halloween. I highly admired, and still do, the culture and religion. I am white with straight hair so I could never look like a 'true' Rasta. I feel today this would be considered racist. One Halloween I was in a serious relationship with a Vietnamese woman and we both wore traditional silk Vietnamese clothes and conical hats. Am I racist because I'm not Asian and she not racist even though she has never worn these clothes as an Asian-American?

Oct. 31 2013 10:29 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

I'm going to be "Cord Jefferson" for Halloween this year. Can the real Cord Jefferson tell me if it is racist if I get a spray tan to look more like Cord Jefferson? If not, why? Is tanning racist? Thank you Cord Jefferson for improving our lives!

Oct. 31 2013 10:13 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

"Blackface" in the manner of a minstrel or gollywog, is never ok.

However, putting on make up to darken one's skin, for a character, (Julianne Hough) while may be considered insensitive by some, is not automatically "racist."

Juxtaposition and context are very important. Dov Hikind wearing "blackface" at a Purim party is one thing, him wearing it with a prison jump suit, just because, was way over the line.

Oct. 31 2013 10:09 AM
Jimmy McNulty from Yonkers, NY

The notion of "offensiveness" (and its mirror-image, "political correctness") represent a victory for good ol' hegemonic American white/male supremacy. When we stop defining and calling out things as clearly /RACIST/ (or sexist, or homo-antagonistic, etc.), and instead use labels like "offensive," we're slyly blaming the victim ("'those people' are 'offended' by this") and also moving the debate from territory of clear, objective moral and political /wrongness/ to one person's interpretation versus another. Racism and white supremacy are real, and they are central features of everyday American life. Having first nations people serve as mascots for sports teams is not "offensive," it is RACIST and dehumanizing. Blackface is racist. Dressing up as a "typical" Indian/Mexican/Asian/"Ghetto person" is racist, and it should be treated as such -- zero tolerance.

Oct. 31 2013 09:59 AM

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