Regardless of the cultural moment, there are certain Halloween costumes you know you'll see every year: At any given party, you'll likely spot someone painted up like a sexy cat, a glittered-up mermaid or a bloodied zombie.
Unfortunately, if you're out long enough, there's a high likelihood you'll also run into white people donning cartoonish sombreros, a college student dressed as a celebrity, complete with full Blackface, or one of many store-bought costumes appropriating the ceremonial garb of Native Americans — and, despite what Megyn Kelly might believe, appropriating another race or culture for the sake of a Halloween costume is never okay.
Still, even though there are deeply embedded patterns of clichéd and insulting costumes, Halloween doesn't have to be a holiday where people brace themselves for a barrage of racist tropes. It's a unique time of year because it offers people the possibility to play and create an alter ego; the cultural insistence on keeping these old costumes alive shows, at best, a deep lack of imagination. Even with non-offensive costumes that reference the current media landscape, we're using the holiday as a mirror into what exists, rather than a projection into what could be. Since the costuming aspect gives Halloween a rare chance to usher people into an art form, could the holiday instead serve as an opportunity to play with identities suited for a more radical world we'd want to live in?
Deirdra Govan, the costume designer of "Sorry to Bother You," is well-versed in mapping out alternative worlds through the art form of costuming. While the world of "Sorry to Bother You" had a distinctly magical realist nature (edging into horror at times), Govan recalls one of the most daunting sequences from the movie, which addressed both viral meme culture and the shadier side of Halloween costumes.
"I think back to this one scene from 'Sorry to Bother You' when Cassius [played by Lakeith Stanfield] gets hit with the Coke can and then his look quickly gets appropriated," Govan says. "There's this ad that says, 'Have a Cola and a smile, bitch,' that shows viral footage of Cassius getting hit; soon after, kids were walking around in Afro wigs with a Coca-Cola can attached to the wig. That was a Halloween costume in our story that directly touched on the feeling of being appropriated."
It feels fitting that many of the characters in the movie wearing Cassius's Afro wig costume are carefree white kids, the demographic to which many questionable costumes are catered. For Govan, the alternative to appropriative costumes is not hinged on limiting what we can explore or admire, but a practice in actual mindfulness.
"Costumes allow people to step into someone else's shoes, albeit temporarily. People need to be mindful of what they are doing. So, you may admire Barack Obama — and that is good, but it doesn't mean you walk around in Blackface. We're in a culture where people appropriate without understanding what they're doing, or worse yet, they understand and don't care," Govan says.
When it comes to projecting a more radical future for the holiday, Govan sees Halloween as a space for people to explore the spectrum of gender expression in a meaningful way.
"I think my utopian view of Halloween is both a political statement, but also where the future could go if our politics shift. One vision I have of Halloween is: androgyny," she says. "When I say 'androgyny,' I mean a trick of the eye, not knowing who is who. That interests me because right now we are in a political moment where the greater public is recognizing trans identity and non binary identities, and androgyny is really a trick of the eye and space where you can explore beyond your limits."
To Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute and author of Who Owns Culture?, Halloween already offers up projections of future worlds — they just often lean toward further dystopia. However, she notes the ways people approach "being" versus "wearing" costumes says a lot about the holiday's possibility.
"Costumes are often aspirational or idealized — with all due respect to Edna Mode, the cape makes the superhero," she says. "Modern Halloween costumes can be dystopian, with zombies and ghouls taking to the streets, but they can also be utopian and even empowering. I find it revealing that people refer in conversation to what they are going to 'be' rather than what they are going to 'wear' for Halloween."
According to Scafidi, the persistence of racist costumes isn't a matter of what the stores sell, so much as what people choose to say. In short, there will always be people who enjoy offending and getting a rise.
"Nearly everyone speaks fashion every day, but just as with verbal communication, many of us rely on clichés rather than thinking creatively about costumes," she explains. "Halloween also has a long history as a transgressive holiday, operating outside the usual conventions of dress, and some revelers may intend to offend."
But just as Govan sees alternative futures, Scafidi also sees a gradual shift towards a more complex spin on the holiday.
"Cosplay has now entered mainstream vocabulary, an indicator that more people are aware of the playful potential of costume, and crafting is also on the rise," she says. "My trend forecast for Halloween is increasingly bright and creative, with some continuing cultural clouds."
Craig Jenkins, the president of Ohio University’s STARS (Students Teaching About Racism in Society), which launched the "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign back in 2011, recognizes Halloween's potential for radical change, but mostly the urgent need for it.
"When people appropriate from another culture, you have to understand those stereotypes still exist within our present day. They have throughout history been used to justify violence against people, that's where a lot of the frustration comes from," Jenkins says. "It's the one night you're supposed to cut loose and be whoever you want, and you're still confronted with the stigma of not being a full human being."
Blatant ignorance, capitalist disregard for humanity and a lack of empathy all contribute to this yearly cycle, and yet, Jenkins also sees the ways Halloween opens doors for personal identity. Like Govan, he notes the ways gender expressions are broken down this one night a year.
"As you see with the history of drag culture, people have always dressed up in costumes. But for many people, it's more than a costume — it's one of the only safe places they can express their identity," he explains. "If you're a transgender person and you're not totally comfortable with expressing yourself yet, Halloween can be an opportunity for you to celebrate who you truly are. Even cis people can experiment with their gender identity if they want to. People have so much agency to be whoever they want, even if it's only for one night."
On a personal level, Jenkins's utopian vision of Halloween would involve costumes that speak to an elevated sense of personal identity.
"I'm dressing up as Black Panther this year, which is pretty close to my utopian vision," he says. "But my ideal costume would be science-fiction- or fantasy- based, with aspects of Native American culture, because I'm Native American, and maybe some [allusions] to Irish culture, since I'm also Irish. I would definitely try to create something specifically unique about me."
The continued trend of culturally appropriative costumes speaks to several issues. Well-meaning people of all races, but mostly white, are often not used to considering the racist histories of these stereotypes. To many, Halloween is a night where they can play with identity and appearance, so assuming another person's identity is not offensive, even if you're continually told it is. This cycle is further perpetuated by our capitalist culture; companies are selling these costumes every year and people are still buying them. To this very point, this fall, the lingerie site Yandy has continued to sell an array of "sexy Native American" and Mexican-themed costumes that have received understandable protest.
While it might be a bad look socially, people are getting away with these costumes without worrying about long-term repercussions. When actress Julianne Hough wore Blackface with her costume for Crazy Eyes from "Orange is the New Black," or when Hilary Duff and Jason Walsh dressed in cringe-inducing pilgrim and Native American costumes, there was a brief period of outrage and then no real cultural shift. And while Megyn Kelly may end up fired from her NBC job for questioning the concerns around issues like Blackface, she will likely still receive her full $69 million paycheck.
But as demoralizing as it is to continually witness the same tired racist costumes year after year, our culture is also making strides when it comes to representation and vivid imaginations of justice through cinematic experiences like the nation of Wakanda from "Black Panther" or the parallel version of Oakland from "Sorry to Bother You." While we may still be subject to the continued cycle of casual racism, we may also be closer to a radical, utopian Halloween experience than we realize.