A Call for Politically Correct Halloween Costumes
Last Halloween season, I was disgusted (but not surprised) by a latex mask offered by Spirit Halloween, Target, and many other retailers. The mask made the controversial illegal alien costume, which featured a space alien in an orange jumpsuit holding a fake green card, seem like Little Bo Peep garb. Forum Novelties, the manufacturer of the problematic costume, also sold an illegal alien latex mask, which was clearly a caricature of a Hispanic man, complete with huge alien bug-eyes, bushy mustache, and flimsy baseball cap. Imagine Cheech Marin meets The Fly. Teresa Puente, editor and publisher of Latina Voices, explained: “Costumes like these are just as offensive as one of a Sambo or a Chinaman.”
Although immigrant activists and Latino organizations expressed outrage over the racist, egregiously offensive costumes, some retailers continue to offer them for Halloween 2010. Target, Walgreens, and many other retailers pulled the items off their shelves last year, but Amazon continues to sell both, and Spirit Halloween has replaced last season’s illegal immigrant mask with this season’s “Gaylien Alien Mask.”
I could write an entire law review note about the First Amendment implications of Halloween costumes, but that issue is understandably well beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I consider how politically correct a Halloween costume should be in a relatively politically and socially progressive society.
Due to the ubiquity of social networks such as Facebook, dressing up a certain way at a social gathering could be memorialized in online pictures, posts, and videos. Today, choosing to express oneself a certain way for just one night can have a longer lasting and more widespread impact than expected or intended. Therefore, even though collective standards of decency shift downward on October 31, there must be limits to the descent since one night’s indecency can now have indefinite repercussions.
The appropriateness and political correctness of costumes depends largely on context. For example, a prostitute costume would be much more appropriate at a college party than at a religious or community gathering with small children. Also, in a time of political instability, trick-or-treaters should be particularly sensitive to certain issues. Dressing up as an Arab or Muslim terrorist would be particularly offensive in light of the spread of Islamophobia and post-9/11 racial profiling. On the other hand, a “dead JFK” costume with a bullet hole in the head would be distasteful but not highly inflammatory (outside of Dallas, of course). There are some costumes, however, that would not be acceptable in any context: I am hard-pressed to find a situation under which a Hitler outfit, “blackface” (at least by white people), or the illegal alien mask would be okay to wear.
The creator of the illegal alien costumes claimed the outfit and mask served as a political commentary. To borrow the words of Denny Chan (My First Time in San Diego, printed above on page 3), the creator—who self-identified as Hispanic—may not have thought he was being racist, but intent is rarely completely dispositive. What really matters is that anyone with even half a soul was offended by those costumes, and they should never have graced the shelves of Toys “R” Us, Target, or any other stores. There should always be an expansive forum for creativity and sociopolitical critique—not just on Halloween. However, when one person’s expression deeply offends another, the offensive form of expression should be modified or or de-shelved.