Halloween these days seems to be a time of year when people don’t just cast off their normal attire — they appear to lose their minds. This year, racism abounds: actress Julianne Hough has already apologized for donning blackface to dress up as Suzanne from Orange Is The New Black, and a Disco Africa masquerade party in Milan went full minstrelsy. I’m not sure why these lapses of taste remain so frequent, though they speak to a distressing and continuing tolerance for racism that its practitioners insist is meant in good fun or homage.
So, because it seems to be oddly necessary, let’s try to answer some questions that more than a few people really ought to be asking themselves before they dress up on Halloween, if only so they don’t have to try to come up with explanations afterwards.
Can I dress up as someone of a different race?
However tempting it may be to pretend to be a historical figure or celebrity you admire, or to jump into the news cycle, if doing that involves darkening your skin (or lightening it, as the case may be), then NO. In all seriousness, we live in a society. If, at this point, you remain unaware of the fraught history of, in particular, white people blackening their faces to portray caricatures of African-Americans, you have much more significant problems than your choice of Halloween costumes. Pretending to be someone of a different race, real or living, isn’t cute. It’s not homage. It’s racial appropriation, and as Roxanne Gay explained — even when you have a Hollywood-sized makeup and prosthetics budget — aesthetically clumsy.
And Halloween’s a very particular occasion, one with multiple and contradictory meanings. Costumes can be frightening, sexually provocative, humorous, or allusive. Given the full range of intentions likely to be present at your average Halloween drink-up or trick-or-treating route, trying to be relevant is more likely to make you look insensitive and ignorant than clever and edgy. And that’s even if you don’t go as far as to to dress up in blackface as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Some ideas are so bad as to make the suggestion that Halloween is Satanic look down-right sensible. It certainly is an occasion when a depressingly large number of people are tempted into making public sentiments that they seem to know would look mighty foolish expressed in plain prose, and without the cover of tricks and treats. Don’t be one of them.
Are there other categories of people I shouldn’t dress up as?
It’s wise to leave off your inspiration board any number of real-life people, included by not limited to: Ones who have been violently murdered recently. People who were violently murdered in history because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, or ability. Men or women who have been violently assaulted, sexually or otherwise. Folks who have been the subject of heinous miscarriages of justice. Minors, particularly if you want to do a sexy riff on something. Women in public life, whose role in public life isn’t about sex or sexuality, if you want to do a sexy riff on something. Persons with disabilities, if your idea is that disability itself is inherently hilarious. Deities are inherently risky territory, but they can work if the costume’s oriented towards awe rather than mockery.
But what if I want to bring up history or real-world issues up because they’re scary?
Consider whether or not you might trigger hurtful memories or allusions for people who see your costume or decorations. Vlad the Impaler might be fair game, given our historical distance from his predations, his equal-opportunity penchant for cruelty, and his transfiguration into the fantastical legend of Dracula. Slave masters, lynchings, Nazis, or American Horror Story: Coven-inspired victims of racially-motivated torture, however? Tasteless to the max.
What’s the difference? It’s one thing to conjure up collective fears, or images from our nightmarescapes that aren’t rooted in real-world traumas. It’s quite another to invoke things that classes of people have actual cause to fear, like racist, anti-Semitic, or sexual violence. There’s a huge gap between a good-natured, momentary scare, and injecting real terror and upset into someone’s night. A costume that provokes a momentary shock, and then a laugh at disjunct between your costume and your real self is a good choice. One that elicits shocked silence is not. You’re not deep for digging into the history books for a costume that’s about real-world horrors rather than the supernatural if you go with a look that might genuinely upset your fellow party-goers. You’re ill-mannered. Leave your 12 Years A Slave ensemble at home, please. And if you’re going to a party where the guest list is so homogenous that there’s no chance of differences of opinion or reaction to a costume? Well, that’s another matter entirely.
Do I have to be sexy?
Certainly not! My colleagues at ThinkProgress wrote a highly comprehensive guide to a non-sexist Halloween. Don’t believe them? Listen to the wisdom of Mean Girls, which provides a reminder — unfortunate language about sexually active women aside — that sexy Halloween costumes are as much about conforming to expectations as they are about creativity:
And even if you don’t buy that, learn from the example of Heidi Klum, whose elaborate Halloween costumes alternate between sexy and silly, but are always distinguished by their creativity, sense of humor, and attention to detail. If she can dress up as the apple, while then-husband Seal goes in drag as Eve, it ought to be a reminder that you can be sexy any day, but Halloween’s an opportunity to do more than wear lingerie, if you’re so inclined.
But if you want to go sexy for Halloween — or find your eye caught by someone who’s made that costume choice — the holiday doesn’t give anyone license to treat you like you’re the candy on offer, and it’s not permission to act as if anyone else is your treat. Disguising your identity may all be in good fun. But acting as if all norms, other than the ones governing wardrobe and the right to knock on people’s doors and demand combinations of sugar and corn syrup, are suspended, is a serious no.