Mueller, J.C., D. Dirks, and L.H. Picca. 2007. “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and the Engagement of the Racial Other.”

Mueller, Jennifer C., Danielle Dirks, and Leslie Houts Picca. 2007. “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other.” Qualitative Sociology 30: 315-335.


Examines construction of identity through ritual costuming through participant observation journals –

During Halloween, many individuals actively engage the racial other in costuming across racial/ethnic lines. Although some recognize the significance of racial stereotyping in costuming, it is often dismissed as being part of the holiday’s social context” (315).


Examines how “playing” with racialized concepts is make “safe” and inconsequential through Halloween – works to trivialize/reproduce racial stereotypes, racial hierarchy. “We argue that unlike traditional “rituals of rebellion,” wherein subjugated groups temporarily assume powerful roles, whites contemporarily engage Halloween as a sort of “ritual of rebellion” in response to the seemingly restrictive social context of the post-Civil Rights era, and in a way that ultimately reinforces white dominance” (315).


Recent waves of collegiate use of blackface at parties, widespread (corporate) distribution of Halloween costumes that play on racial stereotypes.


Holidays such as Halloween as “rituals of rebellion” – “culturally permitted and ritually framed spaces where the free expression of countercultural feelings are tolerated, and protected to some degree by the agents of the official culture” (316 – see Gluckman 1963; Yinger 1977) – allows for reversal of social roles, allowing subordinate groups to temporarily take power – seen as tension-management for injustices/inequalities. “As such, rather than permanently alter hierarchies, rituals of rebellion tend to paradoxically strengthen and reinforce the social structure, norms, and roles they seek to deride” (316). Within carnivalesque atmospheres — “Both historically and contemporarily, this context of free license often = creates the impression among revelers that all potential for insult is suspended” (317).


“ Halloween allows masqueraders to step out of their everyday roles, opening up a wide range of personas for adoption, if only temporarily. Indeed, even when costumes do not disguise their actual identity, playing different roles remains a major part of the appeal of Halloween among college students (Miller et al., 1991). Significantly, adopting new roles through costume is not merely about playing different roles, but may also involve constructing and defining those roles. As McDowell (1985) suggests, costuming is about creating inhabitable representations of the “Other” – that is, “metaphors that can be carried about on the mobile human frame” (p. 1). If one adopts this definition, it becomes clear how powerful the experience of costuming across racial or ethnic lines can be in creating, resurrecting and communicating generic and negative ideas about a “racial other” – those persons of color, particularly African Americans, defined in negative contrast to white normativity” (317).


Stone (1962), too, stresses the social requirement in playing the role of the other while costuming. He argues that while one must first dress out of his or her own role and into the other, the significance and meaning of such a performance is acquired only through the collusive interplay between the costumer and her or his audience.  Halloween’s social license permits and endorses a blending of the inherent contradictions of frontstage and backstage performances. In addition, it creates a unique collusion between actor and audience in which typically hidden backstage behaviors are celebrated in the frontstage through the use of humor and play” (317-318).


“Significantly, the goal of Halloween humor and play is often achieved at the expense of a target, for example, an individual or group that is mocked. While a costume may represent an ultimately aggressive judgment about its target, the joking nature of this practice makes acceptable the sharing of information, which in its unadulterated form might be considered unacceptable (Freud, 1960). Because both masquerader and his or her audience identify the humor as the principal feature of the costume, they are able to circumvent any judicious assessment of the negative images of the racial other being shared. It is for precisely these reasons that humor is such an effective tool in communicating racist thoughts, particularly in the contemporary post-Civil Rights era where open, frontstage expression of such ideas is considered socially taboo (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Dundes, 1987; Feagin, 2006; Picca & Feagin, forthcoming). Collectively, individuals’ behavior in the social setting is reinforced, encouraging both the continued reproduction of racially prejudiced ideas, as well as an uncritical appraisal of them” (318).


Halloween as way to temporarily break social norms, without stigma – fosters “safe space” – experimentation without long-term consequences… “Somewhat ironically, while students describe Halloween as an opportunity to step outside and disregard societal norms, this defiance is made possible only because the norm for Halloween is to do just that” (320).


Stereotype-Costumes gaining “authenticity” or “success” through stereotypical conduct performances: Costumes such as this are indicative of racial “role” portrayals, and highlight attempts to embody race through the use of demeaning stereotypical notions about people of color. Unlike celebrity portrayals however, “role” portrayals have no person-specific or “real” reference, leaving much room for white imagineering of racial others” (322) — not something that requires intensive research or thought — most of these conduct/qualifier/prop stereotypes are readily available within existing “frames” within indviduals’ social minds (333).


“In any case, it would appear that such generic ideas represent whites’ most fundamental attempts to strip all unique identity from people of color, to reveal race as the only relevant marker of those they claim to represent in costume” (324).


“From the relatively “innocuous” celebrity portrayal, to the “role” portrayal, to the fundamentally degrading generic/essentialist portrayal, cross-racial costuming represents the effort to create inhabitable representations (McDowell, 1985) of the racial other and to indeed, engage costume as a metaphor for those depictions” (325).


“This excerpt [detailing how Halloween offers license for people to be who they want to be, without worry of offense] highlights that students understand the potentially invidious nature of this type of costuming, but feel comfortable “playing” with racial ideas and roles on Halloween because they can get away with it within the holiday context. Clearly, students carry these caricatured ideas in their consciousness, but withhold them from public frontstage expression, having learned, as a result of political correctness or other means, to do so” (325-326).


Perception that “intention trumps outcome” (328) offers lack of culpability for harms done “innocently”

329 – Even though some respondents acknowledged the racial stereotypes and impacts of these costumes, only a few verbally intervened to challenge these costumes/their wearers/their intentions.


“Collectively, these narratives reveal the boundary negotiations over deciding what is offensive and what is not. When stereotyping and race talk remain in the safe and slippery terrain of color-blind “now you see it now you don’t” ideology, cross-racial costuming appears more acceptable” (330).


“As Bonilla-Silva (2003) documents, the societal norms of the post-Civil Rights era have disallowed the open expression of racial views. In this way, for many, Halloween has become a culturally tolerated, contemporary space for the racist “ghost” to be let out of the box” (331) — out of respondents, only few deployed stereotypes of whiteness within racialized costuming.


“Picca and Feagin (2007) have extended Goffman (1959) to theorize and empirically demonstrate the frontstage/backstage dichotomy of white racial behavior, uncovering that whites regularly behave in seemingly tolerant, non-racist ways when in the public frontstage, in contrast to the private backstage, where racist talk and behavior frequently occurs. Significantly, the results of our study suggest that Halloween is a space and time where white backstage behavior emerges, if only for the fleeting holiday moment, in the frontstage. Halloween is illuminating, then, for what it reveals not only of the images of people of color that live in the white mind, but also about the white backstage” (332).


“Indeed, as Johnson (1997) points out, the social reproduction of racism does not require people explicitly acting in racially hostile ways, but simply those who will uncritically acquiesce in the larger cultural order” (333)


“With respect to race, we would argue that the holiday provides a context ripe for reinforcing existing racialist concepts. In particular, it provides an implicitly approved space for maintaining the privilege that whites have historically enjoyed, to define and caricature African Americans and other people of color in degraded and essentialist ways. At its worst, contemporary cross-racial costuming bores a track deep into history, intimately connecting itself to the ugly practice of American blackface minstrelsy. Ultimately, the white privilege to racially differentiate supports both material and ideological benefits and disadvantages built into the systemic racial structure” (333)




Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Dundes, A. (1987). Cracking jokes: Studies of sick humor cycles and stereotypes. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Feagin, J. R. (2006). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relations to the unconscious. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Gluckman, M. (1963). Order and rebellion in tribal Africa: Collected essays with an autobiographical introduction. London: Cohen and West.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.

Johnson, A. G. (1997). Power, privilege and difference. New York: McGraw Hill.

McDowell, J. (1985). Halloween costuming among young adults in Bloomington, Indiana: A local exotic. Indiana Folklore and Oral History, 14, 1–18.

Miller, K. A., Jasper, C. R., & Hill, D. R. (1991). Costume and the perception of identity and role. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 72, 807–813.

Picca, L. H., & Feagin, J. R. 2007. Two-faced racism: Whites in the backstage and the frontstage. New York: Routledge

Stone, G. P. (1962). Appearance and the self. In A. M. Rose (Ed.), Human behavior and social processes: An interactionist approach (pp. 86–118). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Yinger, J. M. (1977). Presidential address: Countercultures and social change. American Sociological Review, 42, 833–853.


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