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USA: Race and Gender Politics of Halloween

Despite both its Christian and pagan origins, Halloween in the United States has become a time to watch scary movies, share candy with neighbors, and dress up in costume… Unfortunately, as many bloggers this Halloween season pointed out, those costumes are often at the expense of others.


This "illegal alien" costume was pulled from Target's shelves

One major blogosphere controversy occurred this Halloween over a costume that poked fun at undocumented immigrants (also referred to, often degradingly, as “illegal aliens”).  The costume, dubbed “Illegal Alien,” featured an orange prison jumpsuit, alien mask, and green card, and was initially sold at major retailers, until the League of United Latin American Citizens and other groups, lobbied for its removal.  Popular blog Sociological Images broke down what was wrong with the costume, saying:

Several stores, including Target, Walgreens, and, offered an “Illegal Alien” costume for sale.  The costume, which includes a orange (prison?) jumpsuit, a green card, and a space alien mask, conflates undocumented immigrants with aliens from outer space.

Amalia Pallares, writing for Dissident Voice, saw the costume's appearance as a teachable moment for her children, explaining:

The truth is that I know too many faces, too many names, too many stories of detention, deportation, family separation and pain to “get” the generic illegal alien joke. Perhaps you know some too. It is time to teach our children that there is nothing laughable about the uncertain fate of 12 million people and their families in a context of increasingly restrictive immigration policy, egregious human rights violations, massive fear, annual family separation and financial devastation of hundreds of thousands who are not wearing a mask, but are in fact exposed and vulnerable every day of their lives, cannot escape their circumstances, and cannot rely on the comfort provided by slipping out of a costume.

This Dorothy costume portrays Dorothy (of the Wizard of Oz) as a scantily-clad adult

This Dorothy costume portrays Dorothy (of the Wizard of Oz) as a scantily-clad adult

The alien costume wasn't the only controversy this Halloween. Frustrated by the way women are portrayed in commercial Halloween costumes, a number of bloggers remarked on this year's selection.  Lisa at Sociological Images noticed that Halloween has adult women dressing as little girls dressing as adult women, providing several photographic examples, including the one to the right.  The blogger remarks:

The fact that many women dress up as sexy little girls points to both the sexualization of female children and the infantilization of adult women.

In yet another post, Lisa points out children's costumes that promote the sexualization of young girls.

Beyond the “illegal alien” issue, there were other costumes that got bloggers talking about racism this year.  Macon D of Stuff White People Do shared a bunch of pictures on his blog of racialized and racist Halloween costumes, and also shared a suggestion for readers:

So finally, if you're white, I have a suggestion. Aside from resisting any temptation you might have to somehow dress up like a member of another race or ethnic group — and thereby perpetuating stereotypes and running the risk of hurting other people — how would the following idea work for you?

If you meet a white friend or acquaintance who's dressed up that way, you could say this to them: “Wow, what a concept! Where'd you get the idea of dressing up like a racist dipshit?”

Angry Asian Man comments on this wig, among others

Angry Asian Man comments on this wig, among others

Famed blogger Angry Asian Man, in a guest post for Sociological Images, pointed out wigs for sale that turned Chinese people into racial caricatures:

But hey, why stop there? There are other fun and easy ways to be Chinese. Just try on the Chinese Man wig, “an ancient style with bald front and long pigtail in the back.” But even at the low sale price of $41.48, the Chinese Man wig might just be a little outside your budget. That’s okay, because the Bargain Chinese Man wig is also available for just $22.05. Because nobody should miss out on the racist mockery.

Native American blogger Whebr Hotub may have summed up the problem best in a blog post entitled, “My identity is not a costume for you to wear!”  A quote:

As a Native American, I am utterly appalled to see my culture lump together into some stereotypical Pan-Injun image, shipped and sold for the American masses to mimic my people and culture. I find it insulting my identity and heritage as a Native American, as a Navajo, is as easily acquired with few bucks, some nasty grease paint, and a loin cloth. That history of genocide and forced assimilation of Native Americans people in the US is not even an accessory to these supposed costumes! It's not important or even a consideration!!! What a privilege it must be to take the imagery of a people or culture without the social or historical baggage that goes along with it!

I hope you can understand my frustration; that the race and ethnicity of a group of people is not an acceptable Halloween costume!?


  • Amy

    I see blacks dress up as Caucasians & no one ever has a problem with it. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Quit crying. Blacks are the most racist people on the planet.

    • Amy,

      First, I would argue that Black Americans can’t actually BE racist, by the sociological definition of racism anyway (which is prejudice + power). Second, I have no doubt that you’re right – Black people do it too. But does that make it okay?

    • I would think there is a distinction between dressing up as a specific character and dressing up as a racial stereotype. For instance, you shouldn’t have to be Kenyan-American to dress up as President Obama on Halloween, nor a quarter Chinese to dress up as Tiger Woods. However, things get more ambiguous when one tries to represent a whole people: Dressing as a Mexican or Arab — or a Bavarian, WASP or Midwesterner, for that matter — is definitely dancing on the boundary between the satirical and the offensive.

      • Eremipagamo,

        I think you hit the nail on the head. I don’t think it’s offensive to dress up as a particular character either, particularly when it’s in reverence to the person. It’s dressing up as a racial caricature that’s the problem.


  • ymeir

    If any, I think the Chinese wigs are really funny and not racist. At least for me, and I’m Chinese. If they’re cheaper, I might get one myself!

  • Herman

    Some people have absolutely no sense of humour. I can see why racial stereotypes might be slightly offensive. (But then again doesn’t humour include seeking for the boundaries sometimes?) However, the illegal alien costume is definitely something interpreted totally wrong by some nitwits. It’s not about making fun of illegal aliens, there would be no sane person who thinks that illegal aliens look like extraterrestrials. I can’t understand what’s so difficult about getting the joke and recognizing the play of words here.

  • Atiqur Rahman Arman

    Welcome to our 2013 Halloween
    costume contest!

    The Haunted Knoll Awards are an annual Halloween costume contest, where you
    can submit pictures of your best costumes and win cash prizes, while helping a
    great cause!Entry is absolutely FREE, and for each of the first 1,000 entries,
    $5 will be donated to Kids In The Spotlight. That’s right, by simply
    submitting your best costume photo, you can help raise thousands of dollars for
    Kids In The Spotlight, and further their commitment to train youth in foster
    care programs to create, write, cast, and star in their own short films.

    The winners of each category will receive a cash prize!
    Entries are now open and will close November 7, 2013.

    ” Great costume! You should submit it to”

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