What's behind the pushback against offensive Halloween costumes?

Awareness of what makes a Halloween costume racist, sexist, or guilty of cultural appropriation has grown in recent years, prompting debates on college campuses on how best to deal with such costumes. 

Jim Young/Reuters
Halloween masks depicting US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen for sale on a street corner in Chicago, Illinois on October 25, 2016.

Walk into a Halloween party at a nearby university this weekend, and you're likely to find at least one costume that makes you pause, cringe, and think to yourself that its wearer has crossed a line. 

But in 2016, chances are you won't be the only one cringing. 

Halloween, with the inevitable slew of vulgar, risqué, and taboo costumes that accompany it, has found itself at the center of heated controversy in recent years, most noticeably on college campuses, as more and more attention is drawn to getups deemed racist, sexist, or guilty of cultural appropriation. To some, it smacks of humorless political correctness run amok. To others, it reflects a larger shift in cultural values, specifically a rising intolerance of what's offensive to minorities or women, say sociologists. It also speaks to the power of social media to hold up a mirror, and trigger debates over how best to deal with such displays.

While Halloween partiers have been donning controversial costumes for decades, "we didn't really start to see outrage around this until it started being posted to platforms like Facebook, where you can kind of see these images beyond the social fun," says Leslie Picca, associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. "Part of Halloween costuming is that it’s really all meant to be in fun ... but when you see it on places like Facebook, for example, you start to strip away the fun and see that there’s really something wrong with it." 

Social media may be the most immediate catalyst for people speaking out against offensive costumes, but, Dr. Picca notes, the pushback is also reflective of a larger growing awareness of racial and gender biases in America as diversity becomes a greater priority in workplaces, schools, and other institutions. 

"We’ve come a long way in terms of sensitivity," she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "So I think, in some ways, this is why we're able to have more of these conversations about how this isn’t just a costume, and how does this perpetuate broader hierarchies in our culture?" 

But the question of what makes a costume offensive is only the beginning of the debate, says Bradley Campbell, associate professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles. Now, as awareness of the problem grows on college campuses, students, activists, and university administrators have begun to grapple with how to handle it. 

"It’s not simply that people are trying to bring awareness to it, like saying you should be aware that people find these costumes offensive and avoid them," says Dr. Campbell in a phone interview. "There is an educational aspect, but there's also this demand for university administrations to be involved, to stop people from wearing offensive costumes, to punish people in the name of protecting students from being offended." 

The desire to prevent students from wearing costumes that might offend others has manifested itself in a variety of ways on university campuses, from posters put up around the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, last week featuring a flow chart to gauge the "threat level" of a Halloween outfit, to a video emailed to students last year by the University of Washington urging students not to practice cultural appropriation in their costumes. 

The most noticeable – and controversial – effort occurred last year at Yale University, when an email from lecturer Erika Christakis sparked protests on campus and debate nationwide. 

"I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious...a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?" Ms. Christakis wrote in response to guidelines from the university's Intercultural Affairs Committee warning students not to wear "culturally unaware or insensitive" costumes. The email led to demands that Christakis leave the university, resulting in her resignation in December, and causing many outside the university to question whether the protesters had gone too far. 

Disagreement over the place of a university in regulating its students' Halloween costumes, the issue at the center of the Christakis debate, is "not really a left-right issue exactly," Campbell says. Rather, "we see this as really kind of a fundamental clash between different kinds of moralities, especially in terms of what people are supposed to do in response to being slighted or insults. And that’s causing a great deal of conflict on campuses." 

"Whatever side one takes in these campus culture wars," he adds, "it seems obvious that moral change is afoot." 

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