What To Say If A Friend Has A Racist Costume

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

A mere two years ago, Julianne Hough sparked outrage when she was photographed wearing blackface as part of a Halloween costume of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren of Orange is the New Black. It was later revealed that fellow actress Isla Fisher had allegedly intervened at the party Hough attended, urging her to remove the offensive makeup. Obviously, anyone considering wearing blackface for Halloween this year should learn from Hough’s experience and give an immediate, definitive “NO ABSOLUTELY NOT” to blackface and other racially and culturally insensitive costumes. But what do you do if you find yourself in Isla Fisher’s position? How should you handle it if a friend or family member shows up to a Halloween bash wearing a racist costume?

It’s easy to denounce strangers or celebrities for doing clearly racist things, but when it’s someone you care about — someone whom you know isn’t intending to be offensive — this becomes a trickier problem. Some people don racially or culturally offensive costumes without meaning to offend; they’re simply ignorant or thoughtless about how their costumes might be perceived by others. That doesn’t make these costumes OK, of course — “But I’m not a racist!” is never an excuse for wearing blackface or costumes that perpetuate racism or offensive cultural stereotypes. But in these cases, your friends or loved ones might simply need a stern talking-to about why their costumes are inappropriate and wrong. Sure, they might get defensive and refuse to listen, but I think most friends — in the long run, at least — will appreciate that you tried to prevent them from making a stupid, highly offensive mistake.

Obviously, the best time to intervene with a friend or family member is before Halloween, so if you discover that someone is planning on wearing something offensive, get in there and try to put a stop to it right away. But even if you encounter a friend wearing a racist costume on Halloween itself, you should go ahead and say something — they may be able to make changes to do their costume to make it less offensive (or just take the damn thing off). If nothing else, you’ll be giving them the message that their insensitive costume didn’t go unnoticed, which is hopefully something they’ll keep in mind for next year.

1. Try to make the conversation about the costume, not the person.

If you start the conversation with “You’re a racist,” there’s a good chance that your friend will get defensive and refuse to listen. It may help to focus on the costume and emphasize the separation between your friend and the offensive getup. You can say something like, “I know that you’re not an insensitive person, but someone who sees that costume might feel uncomfortable….”

2. Talk about the origins of blackface, and the meaning of “cultural appropriation.”

It seems crazy in this day and age that anyone would not realize that blackface (or any other painting of one’s skin to look like that of another race) is totally wrong, but there are people out there who are simply ignorant and who need educating. If your friend or family member is one of them, explain that blackface comes out of a history of 19th-century minstrelsy, in which white actors painted their faces black to act out extremely offensive caricatures of black people. These performances were used to reinforce stereotypes of black people as inferior, and thus bolster the systematic oppression, enslavement, and dehumanization of black people in America. Regardless of your friend’s intentions, there is no way to separate blackface from this history. (You can find out more about the history of blackface here. Perhaps forwarding some educational materials to you friend might help? It couldn’t hurt, right?)

Some people struggle with understanding cultural appropriation, which, admittedly, can be a fuzzy term at times. Susan Scafidi, professor at Fordham University Law, defines it to Jezebel as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission.” She explains,

This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

When it comes to Halloween costumes, the lines are fairly simple: Don’t use the traditional dress (or a caricature of the traditional dress) of a culture not your own as a Halloween costume. Your friend may say that he or she simply wants to pay tribute to a culture they find interesting, but you should point out that turning another culture’s traditions into a costume for an American holiday celebrated with beer and candy corn isn’t a tribute; it’s a trivialization.

3. Emphasize that it’s not funny.

Some people might respond to your assertion that a costume is inappropriate by saying something like, “Lighten up! It’s funny!” or “Come on, it’s just a joke!” They may dig in their heels and refuse to see your point of view, but it’s important that you emphasize to them that this joke isn’t funny and that you aren’t laughing. Explain that, if an entire race or cultural group is the butt of a joke, it’s not a good joke. There are plenty of ways to make funny costumes out there; race doesn’t need to enter into it.

4. Discuss how your friend could alter his or her costume to no longer be racist.

There are certain costumes that are simply offensive from top to bottom, and the only thing to do to make them better is burn them (Remember when someone wore a Trayvon Martin costume? UGH). But some costumes would be just fine if one or two elements were removed. If, for example, someone is planning on painting her skin dark to play a black character or celebrity — as Julianne Hough did in 2013 — the solution is simply to NOT DO THAT. Your friend can still dress up as the celeb or character she loves, just without throwing racist face painting into the mix. For example, when Ellen DeGeneres dressed up as Nicki Minaj for Halloween a couple years ago, she sported a hilariously spot-on costume and left her skin its natural color. Simple!

5. Refer to previous scandals about racist Halloween costumes — Because once you’re in blackface on social media, you are always in blackface on social media.

Every year, people wear racist Halloween costumes, and, every year, their photos end up online, and they get blasted by people all over the world. We all know that nothing ever dies on the Internet, and that offensive photos can follow you around for years to come.

Obviously, the fact that a costume is racist should be enough to turn someone away from wearing it, but if your friend needs further persuasion, emphasize that, regardless of whether or not they personally believe their costume is racist, others very well might — and that is potentially dangerous to their career and social life.

6. Say, “That costume is racist. Trust me on this.”

Sometimes there’s no beating about the bush, and you have declare the problem head-on. If a costume is racist, somebody has to point it out, and better that message come from a friend than the people forced to see it out in the real world. Hopefully, if you have a good relationship with this person, he or she will simply trust that you know what you’re saying and will rethink the costume. If, after all of your explanations and advice, your offensive-costume-wearing friend is still saying “Lalala— Racial insensitivity? Who cares! Cultural appropriation? Whatever!”, then you may want to take a good long look at your relationship.

Images: Jazbeck/Flickr; Giphy (1, 2, 3, 4,