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Remember to ditch racially offensive costumes, language on Halloween

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Scull door knocker and cobweb Halloween decorations, on the day before Halloween in Philadelphia, Penn.
Scull door knocker and cobweb Halloween decorations, on the day before Halloween in Philadelphia, Penn.
Bastiaan Slabbers/Getty Images

It's that time of year: Leaves are falling, temperatures are dropping, families are heading out to the pumpkin patch, and that one neighbor is preparing to hand out raisins to kids who'd much, much rather have candy. All is well ... at least until our social media feeds are flooded with the annual onslaught of racial Halloween faux pas.

Often these incidents trigger debate about what should and shouldn't be allowed when it comes to festivities. It's a tired conversation that often ends in diatribes about the tyranny of political correctness and how no one knows how to have fun anymore. We don't want to have that conversation; we'd rather just eat our treats in peace. That's why we're bringing you our Code Switch Guide to Halloween. Unsure if your decorations have racial overtones? Wondering what costumes are fair game? We've got you covered so you can have some fearful fun.


Let's start with some terminology: Halloween is all about the fantastical world of horror. Scary costumes, eerie noises, creepy decorations, cursed images. But ... "spooky"? It's a term some people use around this time of year without much thought. But in the era after World War II, it also became a slur for black people. An Ask Code Switch reader wrote in 2017 to ask us about the appropriate use of "spook" and "spooky," so we dove into its history and offered some guidance:

"Be thoughtful about the fact that [spook] now might have the connotation of referring to a black person in a disparaging way," sociolinguist Renee Blake told us. "If someone says, 'Did you get spooked?' and there are no black people there, then, OK, you mean 'Did you get scared or frightened?' That's fine, I get it." In other words, be conscious of your surroundings.

Of course when it comes to Halloween, language is just the beginning.

We have a joke here at Code Switch that Halloween is like blackface Christmas. And every year, there's at least one headline with the story of one very tasteless costume. These scandals cycle back around again and again, and again. When it comes to this topic, we've been there before — with a whole podcast episode about it. As our very own Gene Demby put it, in response to the infamous Megyn Kelly statement that she didn't understand why blackface on Halloween is a problem: "Maybe these annual conversations should be less about whether black face is bad, but why so many of us have so much historical illiteracy about it's badness."

Sure, no one ever *reallyintends to offend others with their rendition of a famous black character or icon, (do they?) but intent shouldn't be at the forefront of our examination (nor should it take precedent in the apology that follows).

Moving on from shoe polish, here are some more costume ideas that fit into our Do's and Don'ts.

First, under the Dos:

Go for one of the classics: pirate, astronaut, ghost, cheerleader. You know the drill. Or, spice it up with some pop culture creativity: harness physiological terror by dressing up as a Tethered from Us, an alien at Area 51, or if you're looking for a group costume, 30-50 feral hogs. Now for some Donts: 

Let's start with the obvious. Stay away from the sexy Indian fringe-and-headdresses idea (there's nothing erotic about genocide!). Geisha wear (yes, this includes kimonos) and transphobic ensembles are also off limits. Anything that makes a spectacle out of a culture or ethnicity is to be avoided. 

But what if there hasn't been a media storm condemning a certain costume, and you still sense something is off? Like when a reader wrote to us about her child wanting to dress as a voodoo doll. "I don't know enough about Louisiana culture or African religious traditions to know whether this would hurt or offend someone." she said.

Her instinct that something felt off? Right on the mark. Leah Donnella scouted out the origins of "voodoo" and its use as a catchall for many religions. The best-known of those is Hatian Vodou which is vastly misunderstood by Americans and is not to be confused with what you see in movies like Indiana Jones or Princess and the Frog. The conclusion, as our story put it, is that, "When it comes to Halloween, treat Vodou like you would any other faith. That is to say, don't delve into anyone else's religious traditions (real or dreamed up by Hollywood) in search of a costume."

All in all, you should trust your suspicions. If you have to ask yourself whether your costume is offensive... it likely is. And you don't want to be the only one in on the joke.

Great. So your language is in check. Your costume is in check. You're on track to become the best on the block. Now let's talk decorations.

There are endless ways to funk up your displays: jack-o'-lanterns, broomsticks and cobwebs. But then there are optics that send a much more sinister message. In 2018 we answered a question from a listener, who asked about hanging skeletons by a noose outside his home. Was this, he wanted to know, reminiscent of a lynching?

Well, yeah. Images carry meaning that far surpass what may appear to be true at face value. It's our responsibility to seek that understanding even when — and especially if — our identities have shielded us from those legacies of horror. The era of lynching in America began after Reconstruction and between 1877 and 1950, over 4,000 African Americans were murdered in racial lynchings, often becoming public spectacles for white community residents. (Our podcast episode, "A Strange And Bitter Crop," explores the horror of the Claude Neal lynching of 1934). 

Don't worry, you can still make use of your skeletons. NPR's Mayowa Aina suggests siting the skeleton up in a tree so it looks like someone died and decomposed, or even using spider webs instead of rope. Decorations are fun because you can use your imagination, so get creative and avoid invoking historical trauma.

So this year and always, be mindful of your mischief. Entertainment this Hallow's Eve doesn't have to come at a cost to anyone, and avoiding missteps doesn't take much extra effort.

Oh, there's still a perennial Halloween debate that we're not going to solve here. Even after years of controversy, the Code Switch team is split on this one: Is candy corn good or bad? We'd love to know what side you're on.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.