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.