Halloween Costuming: The White Racist Frame is Still Firmly in the Minds of Educated Whites

As Jessie noted in yesterday in her post, and Will mentioned in his response, educated whites are often portrayed more enlightened and less prejudiced than “poor uneducated” whites. However, the data from recent research indicate that a great many whites definitely have not abandoned their old racist views and actions. Most whites still engage in frequent racist conversations and actions, especially in the“backstage” (to use Goffman’s term), that is settings with friends and relatives. And they do not reserve blatantly racist performances for the backstage either. I learned this in a new way in my first semester teaching undergraduates here at Texas A&M.

I wanted to create a “fun” experiment for Halloween. I assigned the article by Jennifer Mueller, Danielle Dirks, and Leslie Houts-Picca, “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other,” (Qualitative Sociology, 2007, 3 (3):315-335) and asked students to do a field observation of Halloween. Then, I asked students to describe their experience with costumes and what they saw both in the stores and at social functions (i.e. gatherings, parties, trick or treating) and how this experience relates to the article by Mueller, et al.

In the article, the authors address how Halloween is a holiday for people to “let it all hang out” pushing boundaries, but at the same time serves as a platform to give permission to display racist stereotypes and notions as acceptable just for one day. These racist thoughts and opinions are often kept in the “backstage” throughout the year, as research by Leslie Houts-Picca and Joe Feagin demonstrates in Two- Faced Racism (Routledge 2007), but Halloween is a day of freedom to allow for these generalizations to be “just a joke.” However, Mueller, et al. take a critical look at the holiday practice and skillfully argue that the costuming is, in fact, the same white racism seen throughout the rest of the year.

My students were skeptical that they would see very much at their sacred university and honestly, I was too. I thought that out of the 33 students, there might be one incident of blackface and a handful of other costuming that would negatively stereotype people of color.

I was shocked at the results.

A few students hypothesized that given our geographic location in the southwestern United States, we would see a much greater abundance of anti-Mexican costuming. Some guessed that the current political tensions with the Middle East would create more of an anti-Arab abundance. Yet, these regional and geopolitical issues seem to have had much less of an impact than the white racist frame. I calculated total number of costumes seen based on the 33 papers, and this is what I found based on the students’ reports:

  • Native Americans/ Indians: 5
  • “White Trash”: 5
  • Middle Eastern/ Asian Indian/ “Terrorists”: 6
  • Mexicans/Latinos (which included pregnant women, Mexican Mafioso, migrant workers, lawn workers, border crossers): 8
  • Blackface Incidents: 10
  • Essentialist/Generic Portrayals of African Americans (which included, but is not limited to, “ghetto fabulous,” gangsters, pimps, prostitutes, “crack babies,” “crack mothers,” rappers, athletes, large-bottomed women, jungle tribesmen, and welfare mothers): 22

All but one of the racialized costumes described by the students were donned by whites; one Mexican American costumed as Mexican Mafioso. Some of the blackface portrayals involved no other costuming besides using make-up to change the color of the skin. The individual would wear their everyday clothing, but darken the skin and change their behavior. Their portrayal of blackness involved many of the “typical” black stereotypes: acting “like a thug,” being hypersexualized (both men and women), as an athlete, as an entertainer, on welfare, or using their own made up version ebonics. Similarly, the anti-Mexican portrayals only included negative stereotyping of this population in American discourse. The most alarming part of the results was the sheer vastness of the very negative African American portrayals. When adding the blackface (20) and the generic portrayals (60) that is a total of 80 portrayals which is more than double and almost triple that of all the other race portrayals (31).

My students asked some great questions, such as:

“Could this be whites attempting to pay homage and pay respect to blacks? Maybe whites just want to know what it feels like to be black?”

However, this notion of “homage” was quickly challenged as it was identified that the black portrayals were all done in a manner to ridicule blackness. The costuming and performance for blacks were all done in a manner that equated blackness with immorality, danger, lack of intelligence, and promiscuity. From my perspective, these portrayals are far from giving homage and paying respect, but rather denigrate individual people of color and contribute to a racist culture.

As my students engaged in class discussion, they began to connect their experiences back to the article and previous information from the course. Key to these portrayals is in the manner in which it is being done. The portrayal of people of color in these costumes was performed through age-old elite white racist stereotyping from the white racial frame. Even the stereotyping of “white trash” comes from the elite white stance. These costumes were at parties, restaurants, bars, clubs, neighborhoods, and even Christian church functions. My students discussed their initial skepticism and how it had transformed into disappointment and disbelief that such extreme racist sentiment and performances were so present, pervasive, and prevalent. Even as a scholar who studies race, I was shocked and surprised. It was a blatant and ugly reminder that blacks are the center of the white racial frame regardless of the circumstance. Blacks have been at the core of white racial framing since the 1600s and this is still the case today.

~ Rosalind Chou
PhD Candidate, Sociology
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX.