This story aired on Marketplace, 10/30/12.
By Malachi Segers
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For young adults hunting for a last minute Halloween costume, it's often really hard to walk the line between cool and offensive. There's quite a bit of offensive out there.
I headed to a big Halloween chain in Berkeley, California to check out the options. Sixty seconds. That's how long it took me to find the first questionable costume: "Mexican Man,"includes sombrero, mustache, and pancho.
That's right. The Halloween costume was actually called Mexican Man. I asked shopper Marisol Rodriguez, who happens to be Mexican-American, "Is this weird?"
"I find it offensive when folks, especially privileged people, walk around being a Mexican for a day-- not really knowing the social issues that come with that," said Rodriguez.
I found lots of borderline insulting costumes in the store. Native-American get ups with beads and feathers. Slinky Geisha outfits. Afros and high-top fades. And an entire section of pimp costumes, some of which I showed to customer Leah Aguiler... like the Supa Mack Daddy and the Deluxe Afro Wig.
"Well I'm a teacher. I think that it promotes stereotypes, not positive stereotypes," said Aquiler.
Leading up to Halloween, Aguiler asked her third grade students to consider one thing before choosing a costume.
"What image are you projecting?"
So I wondered if Halloween retailers take things like this into account.
"Spirit Halloween is the largest Halloween specialty retailer on the planet," said Crystal Baxter, a spokesperson for Spirit Halloween. I asked her what it means to sell a costume called --and I kid you not -- "Pimpin' Da Hos?'
"It's Halloween and you know it's a trend that the customers want. And it's the one day a year you can dress up and be whoever you want," said Baxter.
"But don't they play on stereotypes and kind of further those stereotypes?"
"Umm, I'm sorry I have to take a break."
Baxter referred me to Spirit's legal department for any further questions. And while yes, I have lots of questions about how to avoid insulting people on Halloween, legal is not likely to help. So I picked up the phone.
Andrew Ti runs the blog, Yo, Is This Racist?
"If you have to ask, it's usually racist," said Ti.
But even Ti gets it wrong sometimes.
"I'm Asian, and I thought it'd be really funny to order from the internet, essentially like a racist Charlie Chan costume, telling people I was a quote unquote Chinaman," he said.
Ti says he wore it to be ironic, trying to call attention to the blatantly racist costume, but many people at the Halloween party thought he was mocking Asian people.
"I realized then that sometimes that kind of satire can go over people's head and really give you the exact opposite of what you were hoping for," he said.
Okay so, Halloween is not about nuance...which is exactly why my colleague Ike Sriskandarajah argues not to overthink things.
"Oh it get's tough. If we have to be racially specific, like to constrain ourselves to our own heritage for Halloween. I don't know what Sri Lankan historical figure I'm going to be," he said.
Halloween can get complicated quickly. Perhaps the best piece of advice I've heard, is to think ahead. Like try to imagine yourself wearing an African Princess costume at a Halloween party and actually meeting someone from Africa. Awkward right?