Understanding Halloween Racism

Halloween is a centuries-old tradition for marking the end of summer that is now associated with overtly racist costumes worn by some whites. How did this come to be and how can we understand it?

ray rice racist halloween costume

(Image source)

Many people know that Halloween stands for “hallowed evening” and associated it with the Christian All Saints Day (Nov.1). But Halloween is actually much older than this, though precise details are obscure.

For the origins of Halloween, folklorists most often point to the Celtic festival of Samhain which comes from the Old Irish for “summer’s end,” while other scholars suggest that the origins of holiday might come from the Roman feast honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia.

An estimated 93% of households celebrate Halloween in the U.S. today, but it wasn’t celebrated in the U.S. until the mid-1800s, when Irish immigrants brought the ritual with them.

The rituals and practices that emerged in the U.S., shaped the way the holiday is celebrated elsewhere. You can see this in a recent photo feature at The Guardian of “Halloween preparations around the globe” .



pumpkins in china

(Halloween in China, image source)

Nevermind that most of the photos from “around the globe” are from the U.S., the images that are from outside the U.S. seek to replicate a fall-in-New England version of Halloween.

Make no mistake, Halloween is big business. Americans will spend $2.8 billion on costumes, including $1.1 billion for children’s costumes, $1.4 billion adult costumes and $2.2 billion on candy and another $350 million on costumes for their pets, according to a National Retail Federation survey. What was once a relatively minor holiday primarily for children and celebrated by one ethnic group in the U.S., has turned into a major consumer ritual widely celebrated by adults, many of them in overly racist costumes. Why?

In their study of journal entries from college students (N=663), researchers Mueller, Dirks, and Houts Picca analyzed the study participants entries during Halloween.

The authors point to Durkheim who noted that although some holidays can be about reinforcing social control (watch “Home for the Holidays” and think of Durkheim), other holidays like New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras, are “rituals of rebellion” where all the usual rules of social life are temporarily suspended. Often this is a time when those in lower social positions temporarily assume more powerful roles,. Durkheim’s argument was that these types of rituals are a necessary safety valve for society because they allow people to blow off steam in short, neatly contained bursts. Once the holiday is over, then go everything goes back to the usual social order.

Halloween is now a “rituals of rebellion”, but not exactly in the way that Durkheim described it.

Mueller and colleagues found that many of the people in their study chose costumes that would be considered racist in other contexts, but they mostly minimized the significance by pointing to the holiday’s social context, like “Josh” described:

… because this is Halloween and anything goes. Normally dressing up as people from other cultures, such as the Rastafari, would be considered some sort of racism or people might be offended … This is the great thing about Halloween, people can go all out and be whoever they want to be, without having to worry about what people will think or who will be offended. (Mueller, Dirks, and Houts Picca, 2007, p.325).

By making light of racist costumes in the “safe” context of Halloween, the authors argue that this creates a way for people to trivialize and reproduce racial stereotypes while supporting the racial hierarchy. However, instead of the Durkheim-ian  “ritual of rebellion,” in which those in less powerful positions momentarily assume more powerful roles, racist Halloween rituals reverses this.

In the contemporary iteration of Halloween, it’s the more socially powerful group – whites – who temporarily take on the position of the less socially powerful group – African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.

By enacting this “reversed ritual of rebellion” whites are responding to what many see as a seemingly restrictive social context of the post-Civil Rights, “post-racial” era. And, a la Durkheim, when this short burst of rebellion is over, then the dominant social order is reinforced. In other words, this brief moment of ritualized acting out only serves to reinforce the already existing white dominance.

racist costumes not ok

(Image created by Ohio University, Students Teaching Against Racism in Society – STARS)

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.



Undocumented Migration is No Joke – Neither is the Illegal Alien Costume

Several immigrant rights groups have expressed their displeasure at major retailers such as Target and Amazon selling “illegal alien” costumes at their stores and online.  In response, Target has pulled the product, and it is not currently available on Amazon.com.  Yet, judging by comments below news articles such as this one, online readers at that site can’t seem to understand what all the fuss is about. According to an online poll, 87% of the readers of the NBC news article found the story amusing, and all of the comments below the article are unsympathetic to the cause.

What’s the deal? Why are immigrant rights activists upset about the costume?

The first reason is that the terminology “illegal alien” is offensive, as is its correlate “illegal.” “Illegal alien” is a popular and official term used to refer to people who do not have the proper documentation to remain within US borders. Despite being an official term, “alien” has a popular connotation as a space creature, and thus comes across as harsh when referring to human beings.

Using “illegal” as an adjective or a noun to refer to a person is inappropriate – no one is illegal. There are many possible reasons why migrants may lack the proper documentation to remain in the US borders, but most of the reasons do not involve major infractions of US law. Few of the reasons, in fact, involve any violation of US criminal law. Crossing the border without inspection is a violation of civil law, as is overstaying a tourist, student, or other visa. Those details aside, breaking one law does not render a person “illegal.” Most people have committed some crime in their lives, including jaywalking, driving without their license handy, or drinking underage. None of those activities render a person “illegal,” nor do they make you a “criminal.”

Calling a person an “illegal” or an “illegal alien” is offensive and dehumanizing. It takes the emphasis off of the migrant as a person and redirects it to their presumed “illegality.” Calling migrants “aliens” further dehumanizes them.

Although the costume may be considered to be a joke, the life circumstances of undocumented people in the United States are not a laughing matter. People who lack documentation to remain in the US often face abuses at the hands of their employers, and are forced to accept low wages and bad working conditions. Many long to return home to attend important family functions such as funerals, and cannot, for fear they will not be able to return and continue to secure their family’s livelihood. Many spouses live separated for years; many parents live thousands of miles from their children and depend on phone calls as their only means of communication.

I am sure many of us will see these distasteful costumes on the streets on October 31. I hope many more of us will take part in actions that let undocumented migrants know that we recognize their human rights and humanity.

See this for the stories of some undocumented migrants in the US.  And, visit CHIRLA to find out about their current campaigns in support of migrants’ rights.