With Halloween right around the corner, University of Minnesota sociology graduate student Meghan Krausch took the opportunity to talk with her students about Halloween costumes that are racist or that perpetuate stereotypes. She was gracious enough to share the activity with us, which is below.
The goal of this lesson plan is to encourage students to consider how Halloween costumes reinforce hurtful stereotypes and white racial dominance in contemporary US society. It also serves a good case study of contemporary debates around race and representation in popular culture.
My course is on US Race Relations, and students were largely familiar with the premise of the discussion already, so I began with the following images and videos. Other courses may need to modify the activity to provide more introduction or basis for the lesson.
I showed a few images of “Indian” costumes, some racial/ethnic costumes for dogs, and a video of a comedy sketch involving blackface from the 1950s. I warned them that the blackface video was very offensive and hurtful, but that I felt it was important for us all to know what “blackface” actually refers to—a specific kind of racist performance that was at one time very common in the US. Examples of such costumes and videos are easy to find on the internet—these are just the ones I happened to use:
I then passed out the following 4 short readings/blog posts on cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes:
I asked students to choose one of the readings to read all the way through and to get into groups of 4. The majority of students seemed to find the first reading from Native Appropriations most useful. Based on our class conversation, I would recommend the first two blog posts (the open letter from Native Appropriations and the commentary from Autostraddle), and maybe scratch the other two.
I asked the students to answer the following questions in their groups:
- List at least 3 reasons why dressing up as a member of another racial or ethnic group is hurtful and/or offensive.
- List at least 3 reasons why people continue to wear these costumes.
- Has anyone in the group had any personal experience (with friends or family, for example) with this situation?
- How does the larger social context matter when we think about this issue?
- Design and draw a costume that is not offensive.
We then used this small group discussion to launch us into a larger discussion, which especially focused on dilemmas and debates about how can do what. I focused the students on a few questions, including the role that power, domination, and the larger social context play in determining the difference between when whites dress up as others and when people of color do the same thing.
Finally, I strongly suggest bringing Halloween candy if you are going to discuss Halloween in the classroom!
Meghan Krausch is an instructor and PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. She is currently finishing her dissertation on utopian social movements and “people’s education” in Buenos Aires. She enjoys exploring the liberatory potential of education in and out of the university classroom.
Chris — October 28, 2012
I think that calling attention to the stereotypes used in costuming is important to recognize. I think that this perpetuates beyond Halloween though, because theater and books both need to convey a lot about a character in a very short amount of space, and stereotyping can be an effective way to convey those unwritten attitudes. Thank you for pointing out how it is important to view our world critically and accept everyone for who they actually are, not what we make them to be.
Kyle Green — October 29, 2012
Thanks for putting together this teaching suggestion. I agree that halloween costumes are a great way to get a discussion about race (and definitely gender) going.
I was wondering, do you think it is possible for someone to dress up as someone with a different racial background without it being offensive or deserving of being labeled racist?
I am curious what your answer is but also think it would be an interesting challenge to give to the class. Did anyone in your class make this argument?
Jen — November 1, 2012
We conducted a similar activity on Halloween and used many of the sources you listed above. Unfortunately, many of my students could not (would not?) understand why this was hurtful even after long discussions on how meaningful a feather may be to a young Native American or the history of portraying other cultures as being essentially (in the constructivist/essentialist sense) inferior.
I'm hoping one or two students thought a little more about Halloween costumes this year!
alexfelipe — November 1, 2012
I Don't Get It.
When I say I don’t ‘get it.’ I mean that I don’t accept the rationale behind why the outcry is focused on the costumes themselves. I don’t understand why the call is basically for White people NOT to do it. Full Stop.
I mean why is it that we see costumes based on traditional dress racist? The usual refrain is: “we are a culture, not a costume.” But if this is the case, would it not also be proper for Whites to decry costumes based on horned Vikings (which are historically inaccurate btw) or medieval knights?
Now the answer to my question is obvious. It’s not the same because of the disparity in power relations, and due to the vicious history of colonization that has imbued on to these images a different connotation.
I get that.
What I don’t get, is why this translates simply into: Don’t wear that Whitey
- - -
*The above is an excerpt from my latest blog post: http://alexfelipe.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/thats-racist-but-not-how-you-might-think/
(and in case you're wondering, yes I am a person of colour myself...
Meg Krausch — November 1, 2012
Good question, Kyle. In class, we spent some time discussing the difference between a) whites dressing up as any other racial or ethnic group and b) people of color dressing up as white or another racial/ethnic group. Our discussion came to the conclusion that concerning a) there is probably a gray area between definitely offensive and not doing it all, but for me this really comes back to the particular connection to the hurtful and offensive history of blackface and the role that costumes play within a social context. In other words, this isn't about defining clear racial lines that must not be crossed but instead about understanding how individual actions exist in a larger social and historical context. In this case, blackface was a long and racist tradition that cannot be ignored, and individual contemporary Halloween costumes exist in the shadow of that history, regardless of their wearers' intents. We also discussed white privilege, and pondered what the motivation is for whites to continue to dress up as "Indians" after being directly told that it is hurtful. What is the relative hurt to each party that is done by saying that certain costumes are off limits to certain people or not?
A few students brought up a Louis CK comedy routine which is meant to spoof white privilege, and another criteria we considered was whether comedy or costumes perpetuate or challenge domination and the status quo.
Meg Krausch — November 1, 2012
Hi Jen, that sounds really frustrating. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure that not everyone is going to get it (especially not in one lesson), and even more unfortunately, I have a strong suspicion that some students (or people more generally) do not want to get it. Part of white privilege is the power to define and it's perhaps not surprising that many people are reluctant to give that up.
As for your comment, Alex, I would just say that certainly no one here is advocating only talking about costumes and leaving aside all of the other myriad ways that racial inequality structures our lives!