Hold thy judgment: intent matters in cultural Halloween costumes

In America today, many people find certain Halloween costumes to be culturally offensive.  While some costumes are ridiculed for being too sexualized or revealing, the most ardent opposition concerns those costumes that reflect cultural aspects.  Many celebrants look forward to Halloween as a day for becoming a different person—perhaps someone you have always admired or wanted to imitate, or something from pop culture that you found entertaining.  Whatever their reason, celebrants dress up as someone or something that they are not.

Many people find Halloween costumes that are associated with race, ethnicity and religion to be offensive.  I argue that it is not an offensive act to wear these costumes, unless the person in costume is deliberately belittling or making fun of the costume’s identity.

To begin with, it is next to impossible for any observer to know the exact reason behind one person’s choice of Halloween costume.  If a young American boy dresses up as a caricature of a German boy, does that necessarily mean he intends to make fun of Germans?  The answer is, probably not.  He may come from German heritage, or he may have seen the costume in a store and thought it would be a cool, novel idea.  Perhaps he wants to be different from his other friends who were dressing up as something as mundane as their favorite superheroes.

Does the age of the costumed play a role in the idea that someone’s Halloween costume is offensive?  I believe so.  Last year, at Allegheny College, a student was accused of making fun of Native Americans because she dressed up as Pocahontas.  Her accusers did not realize that the student was dressing up as the fictional Disney character, rather than the historical figure. The character that the student was emulating came from a piece of Disney-created fiction; the titular character is considered a Disney princess.

Every year, Halloween celebrants dress up as other Disney princesses, such as Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty”, Cinderella, Snow White and Jasmine from Aladdin.  These costume-wearers are never accused of being culturally offensive, even though many of these princesses were considered stereotypically European, and Jasmine was Middle-Eastern.  Observers find it more offensive when an American dresses up as Pocahontas because of how early European settlers treated Native Americans during colonial times.

With regard to religion, I do not believe that a costume is offensive as long as you are wearing it out of admiration and with respect.  Furthermore, I do not believe that this student was wrong for dressing up as Pocahontas, and, for that matter, I believe it would not be wrong to dress up as a Native American.  Many students may want to celebrate an outside culture or embrace a partial Native American heritage.

I personally know someone this year who is dressing up as Pope Francis.  His group of friends is concerned with how he will be treated because of his costume choice.  He plans on wearing this costume for two reasons:  he admires what Pope Francis stands for, and he believes that it will be a unique costume that no one else will have thought to wear.  Most people will not be able to guess his purpose, but he is not wearing the costume to be offensive by any means.

In my opinion, as long as you are not belittling a culture—a race, ethnicity or religion—you should be allowed to wear any costume you want.  For all we know, you could be wearing it purely out of admiration for what it represents.  If you find a costume offensive, before accusing the wearer, take the time to discover their reasoning and their ideas behind the costume choice.  It may not be what you think.