What’s up with Racism and Halloween?

As October comes to a close each year, Americans seem to happily traipse around in costumes that flaunt the most racist stereotypes. So, what’s up with racism and Halloween?

In case you’ve missed some of the recent documentation of American racism at Halloween, Ebony Magazine has a wonderfully awful slideshow showcasing 10 of the Most Racist Halloween Costumes. Perhaps the most egregiously racist and just plain callous of these are the blackface Trayvon Martin costumes shared on social media:


(Image source: New York Daily News)

Halloween marks All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day (Nov.1), a holy day on the Christian calendar for remembering the dead. According to many scholars, Halloween is a Christianized feast with pagan roots. Early American settler colonialists, the Puritans of New England, were strongly opposed to celebrating Halloween, as it was seen as devil worship (a harbinger to today’s Hell Houses created by evangelical Christians). The holiday came to the U.S. via Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century and it was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the 20th century (Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002). In the contemporary U.S., Halloween bears t is no longer a solemn remembrance of the dead, but a bacchanalian night of revelry that features a high volume of racist costumes.
If you’re going to dress up for Halloween and are still trying to decide what to wear, there are several guidelines available online about how to avoid wearing a racist costume, or tell if your costume is racist, or find the ways you’re wrong about your racist costume.

Still, even with these handy guides available, white people seem to keep getting this wrong.  Terribly wrong.  Case in point, minor celebrity Julianne Hough showed up at a Halloween party in prison jumpsuit and blackface as a character from the Netflix series Orange is the New Black:


(Image source: Cosmo)

For her part, Hough took to Twitter to apologize, in a “I’m sorry if you’re offended,” non-apology kinda way:

“I am a huge fan of the show Orange Is The New Black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.”


Hough’s costume and non-apology are just the kind of thing that Jamilah Lemieux is referring to in her piece at Ebony in which she suggests that white folks actually don’t care that their Halloween costumes are racist.

There are plenty of excuses for racist Halloween costumes, but not knowing about the history of blackface can no longer be one of them thanks to this excellent Brief History of Blackface Just in Time for Halloween, by Prof. Blair L. M. Kelley.  Her account is worth quoting here:

Blackface minstrelsy first became nationally popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. Wearing tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs. Although Jim Crow was probably born in the folklore of the enslaved in the Georgia Sea Islands, one of the most famous minstrel performers, a white man named Thomas “Daddy” Rice brought the character to the stage for the first time. Rice said that on a trip through the South he met a runaway slave, who performed a signature song and dance called jump Jim Crow. Rice’s performances, with skin blackened and drawn on distended blood red lips surrounded by white paint, were said to be just Rice’s attempt to depict the realities of black life.

Jim Crow grew to be minstrelsy’s most famous character, in the hands of Rice and other performers Jim Crow was depicted as a runaway: “the wheeling stranger” and “traveling intruder.” The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars.  Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.


(Image source: Wikipedia)


The fact that every year at Halloween, there is a return to these centuries-old racist imagery says something about our society.  Lorraine Berry observes that the the “romp” and “drunkenness” (either on candy or alcohol) that mark the holiday speaks to our inability as a culture to acknowledge death in a straightforward manner.

From where I sit, the American Halloween marks an annual display and celebration of the racist roots of this society.




  1. kstay

    After looking at the “Top ten racist costumes” I’ve come to a conclusion that there are certain people who do dress up and to be rude or racist (like the picture of two guys with black paint on themselves in chains – as slaves), but theres also a different side to certain costumes. When looking at another picture from the “Top ten racist costumes” one was a white person dressed up as Serena William’s. In this case, I think that they kinda need to put on the black paint or else they won’t look like the part and will be thought to be Maria Sharapova instead. I’m basically trying to say when trying to dress up as a famous person people are trying to “look the part” as best they can, but there is a line that people just shouldn’t cross.

  2. socmajor7

    This article covered something that really concerned me this past Thursday. While out and about I saw some costumes that didn’t sit well with me but I didn’t know if I was simply being too sensitive. For instance I saw two Obama’s this year. One was a young man with dark skin wearing a mask and the other was a young white man wearing a large cut out strapped to his face with some dark coloring around his eye to fill in where the mask didn’t. I found myself extremely offended by only one of the costumes and this made me wonder if I was over thinking the issue. However after viewing this article I understand that I am not alone and what I say was in fact a form of racism. However the argument is going to be “looking the part” isn’t possible without some form of skin darkening or other offensive form of costume. I know that due to my light skin I choose costumes that I can pull off with light skin which often means playing the role of a white celebrity or character for the night but I don’t think I would ever feel the need to darken my skin in order to look a part so this begs the question as to why others do?

  3. Chrissie

    I think that white people need to stop being “ignorant” about racism in any form. The people who do this kind of thing are not ignorant but are doing it just because they can. honestly, America needs to grow up and learn what liberty really means.

  4. Thefalse9

    The way I see it there are two types of people who dress up for Halloween, those who do it for fun and those who do it to be racist. There is nothing wrong with dressing up as a native american or as Serena Williams for that matter as long as you do it with a humorous intent rather than with the intent to offend someone. The problem with that however is that there is a gray area as to what people find to be funny or racist. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed but where that line is exactly will always depend on who you ask.

  5. shimj

    The way I see it, you can choose to be offended, or choose to not let it effect you. The majority, with the exception of actual racists, of people to dress up like his have no intent to be racist. Although you may interpret it as disrespectful or offensive the intent of the costume is to cause humor. In the case of Julianne Hough, I don’t think she intended to be racist or is racist to a certain extent. I only say to a certain extent because I don’t know her character or who she is, so I can’t assume she’s not racist. But she wanted to dress up as a character and it required her to darken her skin. I don’t think that’s racist, you’re taking it too personal. Just my opinion, in no way am I trying to offend anyone.


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