Offending and being offended have become Halloween traditions as obvious and predictable as jack-o-lanterns rotting on the front porch.
It seems, however, that the yearly agitations over blackface, sombreros and topical shock get-ups carry more weight now.
We’re in a time when hate has a prominent spot on the national stage. But it’s also a time when we’re discussing complex issues of race and privilege more nimbly and more widely than ever before.
From the blatant bigotry of blackface to the more nuanced ills of cultural appropriation, colleges and social organizations are seeking to establish guidelines regarding what and why certain portrayals offend.
And as they do, they’re butting heads with those who decry what feels, to them, like restrictive – if not dangerous – oversensitivity.
Why it’s nuanced
Blackface, of course, is the most verboten and overtly offensive of costume choices. Below that, a whole array of potentially bad ideas unfold, from the obvious (terrorist costumes and Native American headdresses, to name just two) to the more oblique.
For instance, a recent article on Good Housekeeping points out an “Adult Granny Costume” for men. This, and other men-dressed-as-women gags, the article says, could be seen as transphobic. (The costume was removed from Walmart’s website.)
Other ideas that could be considered offensive include costumes depicting sexual harassment, mental illness or animal abuse.
There is a difference between caricatures of pale-faced geishas and sacred Native American headdresses at college house parties and, say, eating another culture’s food or learning another culture’s language. How do you distinguish between the two?
In March, Kimberly Griffin, an education professor at the University of Maryland at College Park told Inside Higher Ed that students of color may feel more sensitive to or threatened by appropriations of culture as the climate of hate and social justice changes around them.
“While they have long experienced marginalization, Latino, black and Native American students are living in campus communities that are perhaps more openly hostile than they once were,” she said. “They are also managing and navigating political rhetoric and policies that are often at best marginalizing, and at worst, racist.”
How it can get overblown
Earlier this month, “Riverdale” actress Lili Reinhart was criticized when she posted a photo of a young white woman painted head-to-toe in black, with demon-like details.
Angry social media users said it was an example of blackface. Reinhart apologized.
But there was also overlapping anger that what was clearly a supernatural look was being lumped in with blackface.
Several commenters claimed blackface is a direct representation of black people, and doesn’t include every single conceivable use of dark makeup on the face.
“Dressing up as a demon - not racist,” one Twitter user wrote. “Comparing a demon to black people = racist.”
Some corners of the internet lit up this year when a Halloween costume sites appeared to offer an “Anne Frank” costume. Various listings also described it as a “World War II costume” or a “World War II Evacuee Girl.”
After substantial online outrage, a spokesman for the costume retailer Fun Costumes apologized. In a deleted tweet, it said the company sells the costumes not just for Halloween, but also for school projects and plays.
Since there is no universally accepted guidelines for what is and is not cultural appropriation, sometimes good-natured depictions can run afoul of its more stringent enforcers. For the last two years, the wholesome Disney Princess “Moana” has been a popular Halloween costume for young girls. However, some parents have publicly spoken out this year, saying because the character is Polynesian, having non-Polynesian children wear the costume would amount to cultural appropriation.
Why the intent matters
Being faced with more complex rubrics of social acceptability has left some people wondering – good naturedly or otherwise – where the line between freedom of expression and personal responsibility is, and whether there is one at all.
In 2015, a lecturer at Yale publicly criticized a campus-wide email warning about Halloween costumes. She said the university’s guidelines exerted an “implied control” over students.
“I had hoped to generate a reflective conversation among students,” she wrote. “What happens when one person’s offense is another person’s pride? Should a costume-wearer’s intent or context matter? Can we always tell the difference between a mocking costume and one that satirizes ignorance?”
Not all critics of costume policing are so academic. For some, wearing offensive costumes is an act of gleeful rebellion, an inversion of Hanlon’s razor driven chiefly by malice and intended to provoke.
This year’s tasteless costume du jour is “The Wall.” It’s a play on President Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall.
According to the various voices in the great Halloween costume debate, such an outfit could be read as unforgivable racism, trolling, a defensible exercise of free speech or a flight of youthful satire.
Why we need guidelines
The University of Texas in Austin publishes a series of suggestions and guidelines regarding costumes and theme parties. The document has existed for several years and isn’t just for Halloween. But last year, it became a favorite target of critics who mocked its broad scope.
The guide, which was slightly updated this year, lists potentially harmful costumes and themes like stereotypes of Asian and indigenous cultures, “ghetto fabulous,” “chicks and hicks” and “Pimps & Hoes.”
It also includes questions for theme party planning like, “Is the theme or costume referring to a living culture or people?”
Angry commenters said such suggestions “ruin” Halloween and threaten free speech.
Fox Business covered the guidelines during a “Risk & Reward” segment this month.
“Every piece of literature I’ve seen from these colleges highlight the impact that these damaging costumes could have,” said guest Allie Stuckey. “And my question is what? What tangible impact are these costumes having?”
Sara Kennedy, the manager of Strategic and Executive Communications at the school, told CNN the idea of the guide is not to restrict or scold, but to get students thinking about the value and impact of their choices.
“After something happens, students can find out why [insensitive costumes] are a bad idea,” she said. “While there is a lot of learning in that moment, part of our goal is helping students avoid that confrontation, and maybe learn some of those lessons without causing hurt to others or themselves.”
How they’re ignored anyway
Despite the widespread warnings and the accompanying eye rolls from social justice critics, there’s a steady stream of students being called out for their offensive attire.
Last year, the Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity sent out an email to all chapters before the Halloween season.
“Please, brothers, be attentive of what you wear this Halloween season,” it read.
Just days later, a white student at the University of Central Arkansas was photographed in what appeared to be a Bill Cosby sweater, in full blackface.
He was suspended, as was the fraternity’s chapter of the school.
Earlier that October, two students at Allbright College in Pennsylvania were suspended for an online video of one student mocking the Black Lives Matter movement while wearing blackface. The college’s president called the stunt a “hurtful, offensive act.”
Mercifully, as the Halloween season ends, this year’s offensive costumes will be filed away with past years’ – next to ebola doctors and Caitlyn Jenners and other homemade bad ideas too awful to mention.
Next year, it’ll be joined by others, and so on and so forth, until there’s either no more hatred or no more Halloween.
It’s safe to bet on the latter.