Some Halloween Costumes Continue To Cause Offense, But People Keep Wearing Them

Oct 24, 2019
Originally published on October 24, 2019 9:29 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Choosing a Halloween costume is not easy, but there are plenty that are insensitive or just straight-up racist. So as the day of tricks and treats approaches, NPR's Leila Fadel examines the tropes and the hurtful stereotypes that inevitably surface on Halloween.

NADYA SAIDIE: Hi, Valerie (ph). This is Nadya at Adele's. I did get your message.

CHANG: Nadya Saidie has been selling costumes in Los Angeles at Adele's of Hollywood for...

SAIDIE: Forever - my mom's aunt started the business in 1945.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: And over the years, tastes have changed as people become more sensitive. But the shelves are still stocked with costumes like Mexican girl, Arab man. That one hits home for Saidie.

SAIDIE: You know, and I always get like, oh, why are they wearing this? You know, because I'm an Arab. You know, like, why are they wearing this? What's the reason for this?

FADEL: She's ethnically Lebanese.

SAIDIE: So I kind of have to let it go. You know, it's fine. They're just having fun kind of thing. But yeah, sometimes, it gets to me.

FADEL: She obviously struggles with whether the store should stock these costumes at all. But customers ask for them, she says. And she only sells to people who she thinks mean well. The thing is a lot of people cause offense unknowingly, says Mia Moody-Ramirez.

MIA MOODY-RAMIREZ: They wonder, what's the big deal? Why are people getting upset over this?

FADEL: She's the chair of Baylor University's Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media. She says people might think a costume is funny or beautiful. The big deal, though, is it's a dominant culture taking elements of a minority culture with disregard.

MOODY-RAMIREZ: So it's the idea of people wearing something without really knowing the history of whatever it is that they're wearing. Or also, if it's something that's from an oppressed group and people are benefiting financially from using that product or wearing that attire but they're not actually showing respect for that culture.

FADEL: So if you go online and search for a terrorist costume, on Amazon, you get Arab sheikh, men’s ride a camel adult costume. Look up Mexican, you get stereotypical sombreros, ponchos and handlebar mustaches. Native Americans - tomahawks, braids, buckskin.

HENU JOSEPHINE TARRANT: When it comes to Halloween in the Native community, it's like a big eye-roll, you know? It's hard for us to celebrate it.

FADEL: That's Henu Josephine Tarrant. She's a New York-based artist of the Ho-Chunk, Hopi and Rappahannock tribes.

TARRANT: When you really look at it and you really study these tropes and these stereotypes and what they mean and how they affect us as Native people, you know, they're all rooted in a historically violent past almost always.

FADEL: To people who say they're just having a bit of fun...

TARRANT: There's a lot of other ways to honor us. Repeatedly in this country, we've not been honored, you know?

FADEL: She says she understands how non-Native Americans find her culture beautiful.

TARRANT: But you need to find another way to support us, you know? We have products. We have jewelry. We have podcasts. We have theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER BEEPING)

SAIDIE: Thirty-two eighty-five is your total.

FADEL: Back at Adele's shop, Christopher Noxon buys his costume.

CHRISTOPHER NOXON: I'm going to try to style that reporter wig into an Elizabeth Warren bob.

FADEL: He looks at the outfit and thinks.

NOXON: It may be in bad taste to be a guy. I'm trying to figure out the politics of it, whether or not it's like drag.

FADEL: He doesn't want to offend anyone. He struggled with this before. About six years ago, he dressed up as...

NOXON: Korean hikers - these women who wear, like, face masks and long jackets and big hats.

FADEL: People who understood it thought it was funny, he says, but...

NOXON: But only later, I was like, that's kind of racist. Yeah (laughter).

FADEL: He understands now, he says, it might have been seen as mocking a minority culture. But he hopes that it's still OK to dress up as his favorite Democratic candidate.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.