An Unguarded Moment

Racism on Halloween

In 1912, Sears sold a “Negro make-up outfit” that was, at the time, described as funny and laughable.

In the early 2000s, near Halloween night, a young college student reports in her diary that two of her young white male friends were “covered in black paint from head to toe” and wanted to be seen as tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

It was “the funniest thing” that she “had seen in a long time,” that young woman writes.

Halloween is one night a year when you feel free from society’s rules and taboos. You can dress up as anyone you want. You can be a fantastic creature.

Some, for the evening, play with race.

Sociologists Jennifer Mueller, Danielle Dirks, and Leslie Houts Picca examined the Halloween diaries of over 650 college students. The students journaled about where they were, what they saw, and what they were thinking and doing around the end of October.

The sociologists found that Halloween is an unguarded moment in America when some young adults publicly express, through make-up and dress, their inner racial thoughts.


A young woman planned to go to a college fraternity’s Halloween party that the frat had themed, “thug holiday.” She was unsure what to wear. She thought “thug” might mean a “rapper” with baggy jeans, a football jersey, and gold chains.

The young woman discussed this costume idea with her friends, one of whom said, “So basically we should dress like black rappers.” All her friends laughed at the idea of “three preppy white girls” like themselves dressing in such a way. She went to the “thug holiday” party and while she didn’t report the use of blackface, the “black rapper” stereotype was the common costume there.

“However funny this theme was,” the young woman later reflected, “maybe it could be offensive to African Americans who considered themselves far from ‘thugs.’”

As the sociologists found, Halloween humor lies in the breaking of norms and the delving into the taboo. It also shows that role-reversal — dressing up as someone or something else — can cross the line that divides mockery from the respectful exploration of the lives of others.

Halloween allows some white folk to publicly truck in racial caricatures and get a laugh out of it.


Some reported that they were staunchly against the racial cross-dressing around them.

At a Halloween party, a white woman saw a white couple who wore blackface. “I could do nothing but stand there with my mouth, literally, open,” she writes. “I was so shocked. I have never seen anything in person as horrifically blatantly racist and offensive as I found that to be. Who comes up with an idea like that?”

At a Halloween party, a black woman also saw racial cross-dressing. She was somewhat amused at first, but then “something felt not right with me. I don’t think it was the fact that white people were impersonating African Americans, but it was more of how they were impersonating them.”

Exploration of race is not just for white folk, as the people that they “other” can also attempt to do so — but the social allowance and its consequences are light years different.

Whether white people intentionally mock, or are truly ignorant that their actions are disrespectful, the result is the same: A public, 21st Century reminder that, even in a candy-filled holiday like Halloween, racial stereotypes are a source of humor for others.

The Tour

A woman who described herself as part white and part Native American planned to go with her boyfriend to a Halloween party. Together they discussed how they should dress.

“It would be fun to go as a black couple,” her boyfriend said.

The woman agreed it would be funny but thought that they might offend black people by doing it. Still, she reasoned, “I don’t get offended when people dress up as ‘Indians’ for Halloween and I don’t see why black people would care if we dress as black people.”

She asked her mother about it. Her mother said that the idea of dressing as a black couple would be “silly” and cautioned that, indeed, black people would take offense.

“We shouldn’t do things that could hurt someone’s feelings intentionally,” she remembered her mother saying.

A temporary role reversal means that, in the social worlds of others, we are tourists, not citizens. The role-reversers quickly go back to where they were and, for all their brief experience, do not appear to be penalized or any of the wiser.

“My roommate suggested that we all be members from the Harlem Globetrotters basketball Team,” a young white man writes. The roommate suggested that they “would all wear big, black afro wigs, their jersey, and a boombox to carry around.” The young man notes that the players on the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team are black.

One guy in their group, Chip, was bothered about dressing up as a black person, but not for the reason you might think. Chip “said it was against his moral values to degrade himself and go as a black person for Halloween.” They tried to change Chip’s mind but Chip wouldn’t budge.

He reckoned that Chip was raised “to think that black people are no good and the only thing they are good for is slavery.” He expressed amazement that there are still those, in this day and age, who think this way.

“Anyway, we kept our idea of being Harlem Globetrotter basketball players and everybody loved our costumes,“ he writes.


This was written by Josh Dubrow and is based on “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other” by Jennifer C. Mueller, Danielle Dirks, and Leslie Houts Picca, published in Qualitative Sociology in 2007. 30:315–335.

Mueller et al’s diary data were collected 2002 – 2004.

In 1912 … (318)

“covered in black paint…” (321)

Results of a national study… (319). The study was from 2002 to 2004. Each student was told to journal before, during, and after Halloween. Most students were between the ages of 18 and 25 and went to colleges in the Southeast US. The demographics are skewed: Most of the journalers were white and most were women.

“Thug holiday”… (323)

Halloween humor… (318)

“I could do nothing but stand there…” (328)

“something felt not right…” (330)

“It would be fun to go…” (327)

“My roommate suggested…” (330)

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND





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