Richson: Tradition (and racism) on Halloween


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I think I speak for a fair number of people when I say that I have no idea what Halloween actually signifies. I associate Halloween with Throwback Thursday photos of me in my Baby Bop or pumpkin costumes, pillowcases full of candy, scratchy wigs that have always terrified me, and now, an excuse to wear less, more, or more ridiculous clothing than usual. And maybe also binging on candy corn.

Though Halloween may not have a deep meaning there are, as with any national holiday, traditions. And with traditions often come rules. For example, a spoken rule in my house was that whether I liked it or not, all my hard-earned candy would be pooled with my siblings’. (Tragic, really.) And perhaps an unspoken general rule is that some costumes are bound to offend people by nature, such as my grandma’s annual nun costume.

Recently, the public was left shaking its collective head at actress Julianne Hough’s “blackface” costume meant to reference a character on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”

I have yet to watch the show because I have been too consumed with compulsively watching all nine available seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, but I also am not surprised that her costume offended some people.

Race continues to be a touchy issue in our society, and Hough is a celebrity subject to the public’s scrutiny. But I am also willing to bet that Hough wasn’t necessarily trying to offend anyone; she probably was just trying to create an authentic, true-to-character costume.

I once painted my entire face stark white (although I’m not sure this was necessary considering the lack of sunlight the Midwest gets post-September) to dress up as the Chinese Disney princess Mulan. Was this offensive? Maybe. But I was 10, so as far as I can remember I didn’t set out to offend anyone.

Granted, Hough is an adult and probably should have known that someone, somewhere, would have something to say about her costume, as she would undoubtedly be photographed while wearing it. She shouldn’t be let off the hook entirely, but … it’s Halloween, a night when the norms of good taste are (for better or worse) loosened.

A more troubling costume-related trend is the insensitive theme party. Students at various universities have come under fire for politically incorrect themes, such as a Penn State sorority’s “Mexican” party, an Indiana University sorority’s “homeless” party (come on, guys), a Duke University fraternity’s Asian theme party, and so on and so forth. Although these were not necessarily Halloween-related, they demonstrate the basic fact that costumes can be taken too far. There are lines to be walked. This being said, just use your head.

Yes, it can often feel like Halloween is in danger of falling victim to the same type of anti-fun that has led to such societal travesties as birthday cupcake bans in elementary schools (a separate issue, but hear me out). There is always going to be someone who disagrees, who has a bone to pick, who is eternally offended. In some cases (most involving blackface), the costume-wearers are clearly in the wrong, but at some point people also have to realize it’s basically just a harmless Hallmark holiday.

So today, buy some orange-dyed fun-sized Kit Kats and try not to be too inappropriate, although that’s always subjective.

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